Artist Gyo Fujikawa, who died in 1998 at the age of 90, gave U.S. children’s publishing a quiet jolt in the segregated 1960s by drawing babies of different races playing together on the same page. When her publisher objected, she held firm. The child of Japanese Americans interned during World War II—her entire California community was uprooted—she remembered many times of feeling “unseen and unwelcome,” and used the small, roly-poly figures of children in her books to create a world in which difference was embraced. Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, collaborators on two earlier picture biographies (Julia, Child, and Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli) explore Fujikawa’s story in It Began with a Page. They spoke with PW about finding Fujikawa’s family, what it’s like to illustrate a book about an illustrator, and how they work together.
Where did you first encounter the work of Gyo Fujikawa? Did you have her books as a child?
Maclear: I did have the books as a child—Little Babies, and Oh, What a Busy Day. I didn’t know who made them, but I loved them. They were like Richard Scarry, with a galaxy of characters all doing different things, and with some images and illustrations that looked a bit like me—although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that at the time. When I had children, they also read the books.
Morstad: I read the books as a kid. Then I saw them later when I was 20, and they stopped me in my tracks. I was so drawn to the way she used line and color.
How did you go about finding out more about her?
Maclear: Well, information was sparse, and a lot of it was inconsistent. I came across a discussion group about Terminal Island off San Pedro, Calif. [the fishing community where Fujikawa’s family lived before the war]. There was a comment about the executive order that led to the internment of Japanese-American citizens, and someone named Danny Fujikawa had corrected it. I pursued that as a lead; I coldcalled him and asked, “Are you related to Gyo Fujikawa?” And he said yes! He’s her great-nephew, I think. I asked if there were archives, and he said, “Yes—they’re six feet away from me in boxes.” He was quite concerned, because there had been flooding in Santa Monica and he had just been wondering how to safeguard them.
I made a trip there on my own, then Julie and I went together. It was amazing to meet [Fujikawa’s] family, to talk about her life, and to dig through some of their papers. That helped get things started, and to give the story shape.
Morstad: I found a drawing of hers on the internet, a portrait of her in the 1950s, and I had it photocopied and pinned up—and I saw the original drawing in her stock of things! It felt so lucky to have the family open up all their albums to us. It was an honor.
Had they shared the archive with other people, or were you the first?
Maclear: We were definitely the first. Her name is mentioned a lot by illustrators as an influence, but people often think she’s from Japan, or that she’s a man. The family were surprised that there was any interest at all—surprised and honored and happy. They were really forthcoming.
I was aware of her boldness. And there was no We Need Diverse Books at the time—there was no program. She was an iconoclast. And she’s not saccharine, either! She’s not sugar and spice and everything nice.
Morstad: The kids are sometimes pulling each other’s hair! There’s conflict between the kids even though the style is delicate and sweet.
Julie, what it was like to make a book about an illustrator?
Morstad: It was very daunting. Fujikawa is one of my idols. I had a lot of moments of doubt. I knew that my work was already influenced by her, and I wanted my drawings to have their own style—to blend my own drawings with hers. There was the question: Should we scan her drawings and put them in? We just had iPhone photos of things, and we didn’t have permission to do that. So I decided to draw like her. I don’t know if that was weird, but it was fun! To do her little faces and bodies, and the outfits, and the hair andeverything. I was actually very anxious a lot of the time when I was making this artwork... but that’s not unusual [laughs]. I wanted to make sure that I did justice to her legacy and her artwork.
Maclear: Even though you did lots of research about [traditional Japanese woodblock artists] Hokusai and Hiroshige, it doesn’t feel like the pages are wearing it heavily. It isn’t laden with research and information.
Morstad: I definitely wanted to get things as right as I could. In the section when she’s in Japan, she’s in a woodblock studio. I found references, images, how you would sit when you’re carving, those kinds of details. That’s important to me, and I also think kids love that. Nothing gets past them, I find.
Maclear: It’s also that Julie saves me a lot of work describing things. I can cut them out. The scaling back of the text is really exciting to me. Literally, the furniture keeps moving until the very end, until we go to press, as we sharpen things against each other, image against the text.
How did you decide which facts in her biography to focus on?
Maclear: I went in with questions... it’s like a silty pond. If you move too much, you can’t find anything, but if you let the water settle, you can find what you’re looking for.
Morstad: What a fantastic image. I love that!
Maclear: There are certain moments that were turning points in her life, and those are the ones that I decided to hang the story on. And Julie’s gift is to find the heart and heat of those moments, to find the visual metaphors that capture the heart of it. A lot of the emotion is being carried by the art.
Was there anything that didn’t make it into the final version?
Maclear: Her relationship with Disney [Fujikawa worked for Disney for several years in the 1940s, producing advertising material for the movie Fantasia], which went on a whole different tangent. There was a long section about the internment, but I felt it was bogging things down. How much is too little, and how much is too much? It’s basically a century—how do you do a century in 40 pages?
What does working together look like for you?
Morstad: Because we’ve done books together, Kyo will write and I’ll do sketches. In some cases the words and the images seem Velcro’ed to each other, and other things just fall away.
That’s a pretty nice metaphor, too.
Maclear: I trust her as much as I trust any editor. I feel she’s got the heart of the story in mind, and she can understand how the images will be carrying the story. There’s no silo-ing, where the words are on this side, and the images are on that side. I don’t work with anyone else like this.
Morstad: [warmly] I don’t either.
Who was your editor, and how did they fit into the process?
Maclear: There were two: Jill Davis, from HarperCollins, and Tara Walker, the Canadian editor from Tundra. It a U.S.-Canadian co-edition. We did Julia, Child with Tara Walker. We had a really lovely experience working with her, and we’re friends with her as well.
I sent everything to both of them. They gave us a lot of freedom without close attention or scrutiny to find the story ourselves.
Was there a lot of back and forth further on?
Maclear: I would tinker even after we had final pages. It’s this chronic dissatisfaction. Everything feels like a pebble in your shoe.
Morstad: Yes, with the artwork as well!
Maclear: Mainly it was Jill who was the lead editor, sorting out the nuts and bolts of making the book. Tara offered verbal comments, but she wasn’t the line editor. The images were pretty much perfect from the beginning.
And what about the designer?
Maclear: There were two of those, too. Tundra’s designer is John Martz, and the American art director is Erin Fitzsimmons. We have two different covers for the [two] markets. There are some interior differences as well.
Maclear: I have a book called Storyboat coming out in February, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh. She’s Persian, with a long history of publishing in Iran. It’s a story about imagination and these two refugee children, but it’s not tied to an actual narrative of migration. I have two other picture books coming out. One has just been assigned to [illustrator] Matthew Forsythe.
Morstad: I’m working on the final art for another picture book biography, about Anne France Dautheville. She’s this glamorous woman who rode a dirt bike around the world in 1973. And I just actually wrote a book in the spring that will be published by Tundra.
Will you travel together for this book?
Maclear: I don’t think so. Sometimes I’ll end up in Vancouver and we’ll go to bookstores or signings...
Morstad: ...and I often go to Toronto to visit Kyo and another friends.
Maclear: It feels like we’re in the same room when we’re working together even though we’re across the country.
It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way. Kyo Maclear, illus. by Julie Morstad. HarperCollins, $17.99 Oct. 8 ISBN 978-0-06-244762-3