Children’s Author Dared to Depict Multiracial World
Long before multiculturalism was trendy, her children’s books featured cherubic white, black and Asian faces. When it was unknown in the trade for children’s authors to receive anything but a modest lump sum for their work, she garnered a contract for royalties. And when her publisher was skeptical of a book about babies, she forged ahead, creating a slim volume depicting everyday moments in the lives of infants that, 35 years later, remains an all-time children’s bestseller--ahead of Bennett Cerf’s “Book of Riddles” and Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Gyo Fujikawa died on Thanksgiving Day in New York at age 90. She was not the household name that Cerf was in his time or Dahl still is today. But her stories and trademark illustrations of round-faced wee ones with black dots for eyes are familiar to generations of parents and children.
Born in Berkeley and trained at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (now CalArts), Fujikawa wrote 46 books and illustrated nine others, including the 1957 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” She also designed six U.S. postage stamps, including last year’s 32-cent, self-adhesive yellow rose stamp.
As an illustrator, she was devoted to detail, a trait she developed during two years as an artist in Disney’s promotions department. Whether in her softly hued watercolors or black-and-white line drawings, she packed in plenty: Everywhere are tots frolicking, cuddling or doing something naughty, sticking fingers in jam jars or tugging a leopard’s tail.
“Children want facts,” Fujikawa once told an interviewer. “[W]hen many things are mentioned, I include them all in the art because I know children sit and look for them when the stories are read.”
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.
“Thirty-five years ago, I really can’t think of another children’s book that was integrated,” said Ginny Moore Kruse, director of the children’s library at the University of Wisconsin School of Education. “It was so unusual. She saw the world the way it was. She was a pacesetter.”
Very rarely did Fujikawa portray adults. Her books, aimed mainly at the preschool to second-grade set, show flocks of tots scrambling across leafy vistas and snowpacked hills. She often explored children’s emotions, such as loneliness and anger. Although she never married or had children of her own, she had a gift for speaking to young children at their level. One local children’s bookshop owner enjoys telling about the child of a customer who so identified with the picture of a crying baby in “Babies” that she tucked her own blanket between the pages to comfort the poor thing.
Some reviewers were not so enchanted by Fujikawa’s work. They complained that her pictures were sugary and too busy, and that the plot, when there was one, was pablum. But few failed to understand her appeal. “She paints the most winning little children,” a 1978 review of “Let’s Grow a Garden” said, “and shows them always engaged in zesty adventures.”
Fujikawa was the only daughter of an immigrant farmer and an aspiring social worker who started their family in Berkeley, later moving to the San Pedro area. Her father, hoping for a boy, named her after a Chinese emperor. When she was born instead, Fujikawa recalled in an autobiographical sketch, “he was so mad he stuck me with the name anyway.”
Her first name was not the only thing that made Fujikawa an atypical Nisei woman. While most of her peers were getting married and starting families, the San Pedro High School graduate was attending Chouinard on a scholarship. She was briefly engaged to be married in 1929, but broke it off and spent a year in Japan at the urging of her mother, who found the thwarted nuptials too embarrassing. In Japan, Fujikawa soaked up the works of the artists Utamaro, Hiroshige and Sesshu. She adored the subdued colors in kimonos worn by Japanese women over 40, which may have influenced her palette of hazy pinks, ambers, blues and grays.
After completing her studies at Chouinard in the early 1930s, she worked on murals and displays for department stores in Los Angeles and San Diego. A friend recommended her to Disney Studios, where she got a job in the promotions department. There she worked on her first book, based on the movie “Fantasia,” and went on to design others under Walt Disney’s watchful eye.
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.”
She never explained why she bucked convention to portray children of many races early in her career, nor did she make a big deal of it. But being Japanese in a white-dominated society surely had something to do with it. As a girl she was shunned by white schoolmates, and later, as she struggled in the commercial art world, she encountered clients who assumed she could only draw people with Asian features.
“She was a crusty old lady,” Ron Fujikawa, a Century City attorney, said of his Aunt Gyo, who lived most of her life in a book-lined apartment on Manhattan’s East Side. He said she would have continued working on books in her 80s if she had not developed glaucoma and Parkinson’s disease.
Her longtime agent, Bernard Kurman, said Barnes & Noble is interested in reprinting several of her books, including her 1961 version of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” and her favorite, the 1976 “Oh, What a Busy Day!”
“I am flattered when people ask me how I know so much about how children think and feel,” Fujikawa told an interviewer several years ago. “Although I have never had children of my own and cannot say I had a particularly marvelous childhood, perhaps I can say I am still like a child myself. Part of me, I guess, never grew up.”
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.