It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

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I stumbled upon It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way while researching children’s books that celebrates racial and ethnic diversity. We currently live in what some may call “unprecedented” or “difficult” times, under immense pressure to keep ourselves safe from a pandemic as well as to educate ourselves on how to end recurring discrimination and injustice against Black lives. Yet what is not easy does not mean it cannot be done. Inspired by social media, I decided to think of this unique situation as an opportunity to reevaluate our children’s book collection and invest in books that helps our family discuss about diversity and equality.

Raised as a third-culture kid and now a parent of a Mexican-Japanese child, the topic of racial and ethnic tolerance has a special place in my heart. I have experienced various degrees of discrimination all my life, for looking different and speaking a different language, both in the U.S. and in Japan. Now that my daughter is almost 4 and can understand a lot of words and images, I feel a huge responsibility to ensure that she feels safe in this world and in her skin. Discovering the story of Gyo Fujikawa, I was initially unsure if it may be too difficult for my daughter to understand. But the fact was she was already asking about why people were protesting outside, and being curious of her brown skin. I knew I had to take the leap.

Once I delved into the story with my daughter, I felt confident. I felt relaxed and released from the anxiety of “where do I even begin to talk to a three year old about race?” All I had to do was open a book. Gyo Fujikawa was a successful Japanese-American author and illustrator who wrote more than 50 books for children. She fought to represent children of various skin colors in her work at a time when most publishers denied her efforts. Even as a Nisei, an American-born Japanese, she could not feel that she quite fit in among her classmates at school. When she advanced to professional art school, she had to acclimate to a level and type of education that most girls or Asian American girls did not have access to in the 1920s. Her family spent the years of World War II at an internment camp in Arkansas while she worked in New York. Gyo’s career bloomed in the 1960s and beyond once her effort for representing diversity in her books became acknowledged by her publisher and audience.

I really enjoy that the authors portrayed historical facts as is, with very simple but real depictions of life during and after the war. The drawing of a soldier carrying a gun and overseeing Gyo’s family leave to internment camp shows life under fear. The plain barracks illustrates that the Japanese were forced to live very colorless lives. The portrayal of protestors during the Civl Rights Movement is extremely relevant to the current Black Lives Matter movement and what my daughter has recently been exposed to. And the fact that Gyo, an ethnic minority, also fought to represent babies of color in her book speaks to the fact that the fight for racial and ethnic equality is both public and personal. I also appreciate the fact that this is based on a true story. It’s nice to know that there are English children’s books on Japanese culture and identity that isn’t written through ninja and kunoichi characters.

This book isn’t an “easy read” for a children’s book. There is a lot to observe, explain, and discuss. However, I really value this book for the fact that it challenges us to do so. Contrary to the delicate drawings, the message in this book is powerful and meaningful. A female Nisei protagonist teaches readers not to give up on one’s passion even if you don’t fit in or feel appreciated. The story inspires that art can help in times of struggle, and that art can transcend racial and ethnic divide. I am sure that I will be reading this book to my child for many more years to come. I’d love to take her to the Japanese American National Museum with this book in hand one day.

Read an interview of the authors by the Secret Society of Books here

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今、アメリカではコロナウイルスと戦うと同時に人種差別という名のウイルスも撲滅しないといけないという運動が行われています。人種差別をしないために自分は何をできるのか、社会は何を出来るのか、色んな議論であふれています。私が3歳児の親として出来ることは何かと考えた結果、なるべくたくさんの人種が描かれている絵本を子供に読み聞かせるという目標にたどり着きました。我が家はメキシコ系アメリカ人と日本人の家族で、義家族には黒人もいます。いくら自分の娘が他の人種と接していても、差別しないとは限りません。人種差別とはどうゆうことなのか、どうしてあってはならないのか、親として教える義務があると考えています。

この記事で紹介する It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way という本は、実在した日系アメリカ人の女性絵本作家のギョウ・フジカワ(藤川堯)が主人公です。1920年代に白人社会で肩狭く育ち、男性社会の芸術学校へ進んだギョウ。のちニューヨークにあるディズニー社で働き始めた頃、カリフォルニアにいる彼女の家族は第二次世界大戦の影響で日本人強制収容所に容れられてしまいます。ギョウは悲しみを乗り越えながらもイラストレーターとして成功を収めていきます。戦後のアフリカ系アメリカ人公民権運動の真っ只中、彼女は子供の絵本を制作する際「色んな肌色をした赤ちゃんを描きたい」と出版社に持ちかけます。何度も断られたのちやっと出版された Babies という本が大ヒットし、その後子供向けの本を合計50作出版するという偉業を成し遂げます。

英語のレベルにしてもストーリーの内容にしても難易度の高い本ですが、今とっても読みがいのある本だなと思いました。日本人も人種差別にあった(そして今でもあっている)ということ。女性だからと言って出来ないことはない、ということ。白人の赤ちゃんばかり描くのはだめ、もっといろんな人種を描かなきゃ、と思ったギョウの強さと行動力。マイノリティで女性である彼女がアートを通じて人種差別反対を訴えた物語から私たちが得れるものは大きいのではないのでしょうか。もしロサンゼルスエリアにいらっしゃるのなら、(もちろん、博物館が再開してからですが)この本を読んでから全米日系博物館に行って見るのもいいですね。

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