I picked up my first Gyo Fujikawa book as a teenager in a used bookstore, because the cute, gentle artwork caught my eye. Titled simply Mother Goose, it was a hefty book containing many traditional folk and nursery rhymes and an equally impressive number of illustrations. The pages alternated between delicate pen-and-ink spots and cheerful paintings that mixed flat colors with lovingly rendered detail on the costumes and environments. I had no idea, picking up that book, that Fujikawa was an influential and prolific illustrator who had created countless treasured childhood memories through her lifetime output of 50 very popular picture books, most featuring her own writing.
Though Gyo Fujikawa published children’s books from the early 1960s to 1990, her style feels very reminiscent of the clean, colorful gouache look of turn-of-the-century illustration and artists such as Mary Blair (though Fujikawa’s work is more down-to-earth and less fashionable than Blair’s). The soft but definite rendering of her lush landscapes and pretty villages, her sunny, unassuming color palette, flat theatrical staging, and cute, cartoony characters with their dot eyes all feel very retro, the sort of thing that tends to inspire certain sentimental people to talk of a “simpler time.” Of course, such phrases and images usually come with a bad aftertaste because of their sinister implications—such as the unspoken exclusion that leads to the common depiction of this supposedly sweeter and more innocent world as blindingly, exclusively white. Not so with Fujikawa, who in fact is known for being one of the first popular American illustrators to show characters of multiple races happily coexisting on her pages, without qualifications or excuses.
As a result, her work is inclusive as well as lovely; it appears both timeless and refreshingly modern. All of her children and adults are rendered with the same combination of precision and charm. Not to mention that you will want to cuddle every single animal. Her painted spreads in Mother Goose and A Child’s Book of Poems (the sources of the images in this article) are inventive, usually tying two or three thematically linked rhymes together with one illustration. Her smaller spot illustrations are funny and expressive.
Fujikawa herself was born in 1908, in California, to parents who had emigrated from Japan. In the 1920s, she studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. After graduating she taught at Chouinard for four years and worked as an artist for Disney, creating promotional art for Fantasia and other films. She moved to New York in 1941, before America joined WWII, so while her parents were placed in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, she remained free. Her books (of which, I stress again, there are fifty!) include Babies and Baby Animals (1963), Oh, What a Busy Day! (1976), and A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (1957). She did illustrations for magazines, advertising campaigns, and six U.S. stamps. Fujikawa resided in New York City for the rest of her life, dying at the age of 90 in 1998. According to her obituary in the New York Times, “Although she was engaged for a few years beginning at the age of 19, Miss Fujikawa never married. In her autobiographical sketch, written in her later years, she said, ‘I am flattered when people ask me how I know so much about how children think and feel. 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.'”
I know that I can’t use my single perspective as a lens to judge an artist’s fame, but I still feel robbed that I found Gyo Fujikawa by chance, despite specifically studying illustration and the history thereof. I wish that there was more than one of her books in my county’s library system, and that there were more interviews and articles about this accomplished artist and undoubtedly interesting person. If you aren’t already familiar with her work, I highly recommend cracking open one or two of her books and seeing her classic illustrations for yourself.