Long before multicultural characters and themes were fashionable, Ezra Jack Keats crossed social boundaries by being the first American picture-book maker to give the black child a central place in children's literature.
Ezra Jack Keats was born on March 11, 1916, to impoverished Polish immigrants of Jewish descent in East New York, which was then the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, New York. He was the third child of Benjamin Katz and Augusta Podgainy, and was then known as Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz. It was evident early on that Jack was an artistically gifted child. He excelled in art in elementary school, and, on graduating from Junior High School 149; he was awarded a medal for drawing. This medal, though quite skimpy in design and construction, meant a good deal to him; he kept it all his life, together with all his subsequent prestigious awards.
Ezra was a good student in high school, and was recognized as an outstanding young artist. During his years at Thomas Jefferson High School, one of his oil paintings depicting unemployed men warming themselves around a fire won the national contest run by the Scholastic Publishing Company. It was the time of the great depression of the '30's, and Ezra's family suffered extreme hardship, as did practically all families in the neighborhood. Although Ezra's mother was supportive and encouraging of Ezra, his father wanted him to turn his head to more practical skills. Working as a waiter at Pete's Coffee Shop in Greenwich Village, Benjamin Katz knew how hard earning a living could be. He felt that his son could never support himself as an artist. Despite his desire to discourage Ezra, Benjamin brought home tubes of paint for his son under the pretense of having traded bowls of soup to starving artists. "If you don't think artists starve, well, let me tell you. One man came in the other day and swapped me a tube of paint for a bowl of soup." At the age of eight, Ezra won the approval of his father when he was paid twenty-five cents for painting a sign for a local store, providing Benjamin with the hope that his son might be able to earn a living as a sign painter; nevertheless, Ezra was in love with the fine arts.
Upon graduation from high school, Ezra was awarded the medal for art. Sadly, Benjamin Katz died in the street of a heart attack in January 1935, on the day before Ezra's high school graduation. Ezra was called upon to identify the body, and it was then that he discovered in his father's wallet the carefully preserved newspaper clippings that reported on the notable artistic achievements of his son. For the first time he learned that his father had been proud of his work. In his Caldecott Medal speech in 1963, Keats shared the experience. "I found myself staring deep into his secret feelings. There in his wallet were worn and tattered newspaper clippings of the notices of the awards I had won. My silent admirer and supplier, he had been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship and his real pride in my work."
Although Ezra was awarded three scholarships to art school, he was unable to attend. He had to work to help support his family by day, and he took art classes at night when he could. In 1937, he secured a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) working as a mural painter. After three years, Ezra moved on to work as a comic book illustrator. In 1942, he began work on the staff of Fawcett Publications, illustrating backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip.
Keats entered the service of the United States Army on April 13, 1943. Taking advantage of his skill as an artist, the army trained him to design camouflage patterns. After World War II, he returned to New York. Eager to expand his experience at easel painting, he spent one productive year in Paris. Many of his French paintings were later exhibited in this country. He painted covers for The Reader's Digest, illustrations for The New York Times Book Review, Colliers and Playboy, among others, and was exhibited at the Associated American Artists Gallery in New York City in 1950 and 1954. His easel paintings were sold through displays in Fifth Avenue shop windows, and provided him with a very welcome income. Two years after the war, Jack, in reaction to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the time, legally changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. It was Ezra's memory of being a target of discrimination that provided the basis for his sympathy and understanding for those who suffered similar hardships.
In 1954, Jubilant for Sure by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing was published. The book, set in the mountains of Kentucky, was the first book Keats illustrated for children. Keats, in an unpublished autobiography, stated: "I didn't even ask to get into children's books." In the years that followed, Keats illustrated many children's books.
My Dog is Lost, Keats' first attempt at writing a children's book, which he co-authored with Pat Scherr, was published in 1960. The main character is a Puerto Rican boy named Juanito who has lost his dog in New York and meets children from different sections of New York, such as Chinatown and Little Italy. Keats was innovative in his use of minority children as central characters.
In the two years that followed, Keats worked on a book featuring a little boy named Peter. An article Keats had clipped from Life magazine in 1940 inspired Peter. "Then began an experience that turned my life aroundworking on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kidsexcept for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I'd begun to illustrate children's books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book."
The book featuring Peter, The Snowy Day, received the prestigious Caldecott Award for the most distinguished picture book for children in 1963. Peter appears in six more books growing from a small boy in The Snowy Day to adolescence in Pet Show. In the books that Keats wrote and illustrated, he used his special artistic techniques to portray his subjects in a unique manner. One of these was his blending of gouache with collage. Gouache is an opaque watercolor mixed with a gum that produces an oil-like glaze.
The characters in Keats' books come from the community around him. Many of his stories illustrate family life and the simple pleasures that a child has in his daily routine. Children from all backgrounds can relate to a new brother or sister as told in Peter's Chair. Jennie's Hat illustrates the excitement of a child waiting for a present, and the anticipation of what the present would look like. Goggles tells the story of finding a pair of goggles, and the chase that follows the boys through the streets of a neighborhood, when the big bullies want to snatch the goggles from them. Keats drew upon his experiences, but these are also the experiences of children growing up in neighborhoods and communities in many parts of the world. This explains the continuing popularity of Keats' books and characters.
By the time of Keats' death following a heart attack in 1983, he had illustrated over eighty-five books for children, and written and illustrated twenty-four children's classics. He had just designed the sets for a musical version of The Trip, designed a poster for The New Theatre of Brooklyn, and written and illustrated The Giant Turnip, a beloved folktale. Although Keats never married or had a family of his own, he loved children, and was loved by them in return.
The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that was established in 1964. When Keats died in 1983, his will directed that the royalties from his books be given to the Foundation to be used for the support of programs judged to be helpful to humanity. The Foundation has been dedicated to maintaining the goals and values of Keats, as expressed in his multicultural work, by focusing on bettering the lives of children through programs to increase literacy, to inspire creativity and love of learning, and to enhance appreciation of the arts in children, their families and communities: a total arts-in-education approach. For more about the Foundation and the legacy of Ezra Jack Keats, visit www.ezra-jack-keats.org.
Presented jointly by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and the New York Public Library, The Ezra Jack Keats Book Award was established in 1985 to recognize and encourage authors and illustrators new to the field of children's books. The New Writer and New Illustrator Awards are given annually to an outstanding new writer and new illustrator of picture books for children (age 9 and under). A distinguished selection committee (consisting of early childhood education specialists, librarians, illustrators, and experts in children's literature review entries) seeks books that portray the goals and values of Ezra Jack Keats as expressed in his multicultural books, including: the universal qualities of childhood, a strong belief in family and community, and creativity and love of learning.