Gyo Fujikawa, Godmother of #WeNeedDiverseBooks
July 8, 2014 9:18 AM   Subscribe

What do vintage ads for Beech-Nut, Q-Tips, and Eskimo Pie have in common with some of the earliest depictions of multiethnic babies in children's books? They were all the work of pioneering illustrator Gyo Fujikawa.

Fujikawa, born in 1908, grew up in California, and studied at Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles. In 1932, her art studies took her to Japan for a year, after which she returned to California to teach at Chouinard, and then to work for Disney Studios. (Photo of Fujikawa during her time working for Disney, as mentioned in "Japanese-American Animation Artists of the Golden Age.")

Her transfer to Disney offices in New York was responsible for keeping her out of WWII-era internment camps back home in California:
It was Disney who Fujikawa said changed the way she handled bigots during World War II. Unlike her parents and younger brother, she escaped internment because she was living in New York; only Japanese residing on the West Coast were sent to the camps. But Fujikawa traveled frequently, and when people became suspicious of her, she often told them she was really Anna May Wong, the Chinese American actress. According to her nephew, Fujikawa took secret delight in this masquerade.

But when she told Disney that she often lied about her heritage, he exploded. "Damn it! Why should you say that? You're an American citizen," he said.

"From that moment on," Fujikawa recounted recently, "that's exactly what I did tell them."
Representations of race and ethnicity would continue to play a quiet, though visible, role in her work.
In her first two books, "Babies" and "Baby Animals," she proposed showing "an international set of babies--little black babies, Asian babies, all kinds of babies." But this was the early 1960s and a sales executive at Grosset & Dunlap told her to take the black babies out for fear they would kill sales in the South.

Fujikawa, a diminutive, elegant but feisty woman, refused. Today the books have sold more than 1.5 million copies and have been translated into more than 20 languages. She is often credited as the first children's author to depict a multiethnic cast of characters.

* A list of children's books written and/or illustrated by Fujikawa

* "Gyo Fujikawa's Come Follow the Secret World of Elves and Fairies and Gnomes and Trolls"

* "Oh, What a Busy Day"

* "A Child's Garden of Verses," Robert Louis Stevenson (illustrator)

Other work:

* "Birdtalk," a cover for the Saturday Evening Post

* Flickr pool of her artwork

* Stamp design: the United States-Japan Treaty centenary stamp and the Plant for a More Beautiful America Cherry Blossom stamp (two of the six she designed for the U.S. Postal Service)

Obituary: From the New York Times; sketch of Fujikawa, from "Female Illustrators of the 1950's: Gyo Fujikawa"
posted by MonkeyToes (12 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I've owned several books she illustrated and never knew it. How lovely!
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 9:42 AM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh wow! I'm sure I haven't thought about it in 20 years but as soon as I saw the first picture of the crying troll I immediately flashed back to reading Come Follow Me... as a child. Have to call my mother and see what ever happened to that book.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:17 AM on July 8, 2014

posted by charlie don't surf at 10:28 AM on July 8, 2014


Requesting a fix; good catch.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:29 AM on July 8, 2014

It's probably only significant because Chouinard became CalArts, which was funded by Walt Disney and became a primary source of new Disney animators and artists. If she taught at Chouinard, she was one of the big reasons CalArts became what it is today.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:35 AM on July 8, 2014

Lovely post.
posted by glasseyes at 1:41 PM on July 8, 2014

I grew up with Fujikawa's Babies and it was one of the first books I bought my eldest when he was born. The text is so simple, but perfectly go with the illustrations.
posted by ambrosia at 1:58 PM on July 8, 2014

I possibly still have my copy of A Child's Garden of Verses. I remember loving the illustrations, but never knew anything about the artist. Thank you!
posted by korej at 5:47 PM on July 8, 2014

This was an absolute pleasure to read at the end of a long day. Thank you.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:44 PM on July 8, 2014

Still have my copy of Come Follow's magical and I love reading it to my daughter. A fairy kitten! A crying troll! A Japanese fairy with her tiny, bonsai treehouse.
posted by amanda at 10:42 PM on July 8, 2014

Oh my goodness Gyo Fujikawa!! My family loves her so much; we have a copy of Oh, What a Busy Day that's been read to pieces. Thanks so much for this post.
posted by epj at 11:32 AM on July 10, 2014

I don't think I had any of her books myself as a kid, but I've been loving her illustrations since reaching the age when I'm buying books for friends' kids. There's something so perfect and iconic about them.

Thanks for this post.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:39 AM on July 12, 2014

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