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It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way

by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad (ill.)

Long-time collaborators Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad (Julia, Child; Bloom) reunite with this biographical picture book sure to enthrall children’s literature fans and aspiring artists alike.

Spanning 50 years in almost as many pages, It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way traces the life of the eponymous Japanese-American illustrator, beginning in 1913 when she was a five-year-old aspiring artist, touching on her time in art school in the 1920s and a trip to Japan in 1932, and ending with the publication of her first picture book, Babies, in 1963. 

Fujikawa was a prolific artist, creating more than 50 beloved books for children in addition to her work with Disney Studios and hefty portfolio of freelance illustration. Truly the godmother of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Fujikawa fought hard to publish Babies, which was initially rejected by publishers for its depiction of multicultural children during the era of segregation. It went on to sell more than two million copies worldwide.

The book follows Fujikawa’s move to New York from her native California not long after the Second World War began. In the U.S. in 1942, writes Maclear, “anyone who looked Japanese or had a Japanese name was now suspected of being the enemy.” Fujikawa’s parents and siblings, who remained on the West Coast, were “sent to a prison camp far, far away from their home.” Maclear does not shy away from this difficult subject. Coupled with Morstad’s haunting image of a guard tower overlooking rows of grey housing, the author writes, “Gyo’s heart was broken.” This book will prompt questions and require some unpacking with younger readers.

Picture-book biographies are inherently difficult to execute and are often at risk of being too text heavy. But Maclear strikes a good balance between informative and engaging as she narrates Fujikawa’s artistic development; her experiences in California, Japan, and New York; and the different people who helped her or attempted to stand in her way. When her publisher insisted there was to be, “no mixing white babies and black babies” on the page, Fujikawa “would not budge. She looked the publisher in the eye and said: ‘It shouldn’t be that way. Not out there in the streets. Not here on this page. We need to break the rules.’ Then she waited for them to rethink their decision.”  The biographical backmatter, including a timeline, photographs, select bibliography, and a combined author and illustrator’s note, delves into how influential and inspiring Fujikawa remains today.

Morstad makes faithful and reverent references to Fujikawa’s artwork in her illustrations and includes striking black ink images, reminiscent of monochromatic Japanese art. That said, there’s plenty of signature Morstad on hand: lush and delicate spreads created with watercolour, gouache, and pencil crayons, with glorious detail paid to fashion, flowers, and body language.

Maclear’s and Morstad’s admiration for Fujikawa’s work is lovingly detailed in their note at the end of the book: “Her depiction of children and sense of color continue to inspire us tremendously. We like to imagine ourselves playing follow-the-leader in a joyful and messy line, with Gyo somewhere near the front.”