Children's Authors/Ezra Jack Keats
Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983)
- This author and illustrator was born March 11, 1916 as Jacob Ezra Katz. He was one of the first illustrators/authors to create characters from culturally diverse backgrounds (Zeece, 2003).
- Ezra Jack Keats started his career in children literature through illustrating for other authors, in fact he illustrated eight-five books. It was through his illustrations for others that he came to the realization that black children did not appear in children's stories. From an interview with Keats he reflects back on this time in his life and says “So I realized that, when I had the confidence to do my own work, my hero would be a black child” (Engel & Freedman, 1995, front book flap). Keats did muster up the confidence to write his own materials and eventually wrote and illustrated twenty-four books before his death in 1983.
- He grew up during the Depression when his meals were scarce and he lived with his family of five in a crowded apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Keats's love for art was apparent at a young age. He won several school awards for his artistic abilities. Keats's works of art depicted real life--people who suffered with poverty and harsh environments in the city. Many of his illustrations reflected graffiti filled walls and dark alleys. His mother encouraged his passions, but his father pushed him to pursue a non-artistic job that would support a family in such harsh times. Not until he had to identify his father's body and claim his personal items did he discover the pride his father had for his art. Keats found many newspaper clippings of the art awards he had won in his father's wallet. In an interview with Lee Bennett Hopkins, Keats said , “I found myself staring deep into [my father’s] 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"( About Ezra. Biography. Retrieved April 15, 2010, from http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org).
- Keats turned down three scholarships to art schools to help support the family financially after the death of his father. Instead of college he worked at Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1943, he joined the army as a designer of camouflage patterns. After his two-year service, he returned home to a world where antisemitism was alive and well. Obtaining a job was near impossible due to his cultural background. Job advertisements in newspapers read “Jews need not apply” (Engel & Freedman, 1995, p. 54). Due to this negativity and prejudice, he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. Keats used his GI Bill to tour Paris and engulfed himself in his art. He sold several painting while in Paris and returned home to sell even more paintings that he drew from Paris in the states. He eventually began to work for publishers such as Readers Digest, Playboy, and New York Times Books. He was eventually discovered by a children's author who helped him launch his career in writing and illustrating for young readers.
- Keats began his career in children's books in 1960, as co-author of My Dog is Lost. His second book was published in 1962, The Snowy Day. This book was inspired by a photograph of a young black boy Keats had seen in Life magazine. The Snowy Day became the first major full-color picture book featuring a black child; it won a Caldecott Award. Keats continued to write and illustrate and he place his childhood memories in the pages of his books. Whistle For Willie, published in 1964, features a dog named Willie. Willie was the name of Keats's older brother. Goggles! is another story that has the character Willie in it as well as a story line that reflects Keats's experiences with bullies in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Louie's Search and Peter's Chair are two more books that were inspired by childhood experiences. Keats also featured himself in Pet Show and Louie's Search.
- Keats enjoyed the honors and fame he received from his books, but he cherished more the letters from his readers. His books were published not only in English, but also in German, Japanese, and French. Many of his fan letters were from children overseas. Keats was not only loved in America, but all over the world. Keats replied to every letter he received. He also attended many schools where he was invited to be a guest of honor or participate in an interview. Skates became a very popular book in Japan, and children would roller skate excessively. Eventually the mayor of Tokyo put in a roller skate rink dedicated to Keats. Some of his books became films. On one particular occasion, Keats flew to Iran to attend a festival that featured the film of his book Whistle for Willie. In Israel, the Youth Wing Library has an Ezra Keats story time on Tuesdays and Thursdays to honor Keats and his time that he spent with them in 1983.
- Keats left us with children's stories that capture real life moments in children's lives. His illustrations paint a picture of what city life looked like, and he shared with his readers a part of his own childhood memories in every book he wrote.
Books of Interest
The Snowy Day, published in 1962, began as a conversation between friends of Keats over their childhood escapades in the snow. His illustrations were colored paper pasted to canvas, upholstery from a local Brooklyn fabric shop, linen sheets, fabric, lines and shadows formed from a toothbrush, and carved erasers to look like snowflakes that could be stamped on the canvas. Though it won the Caldecott Medal in 1963, it was also one of the most controversial books of 1960s and 1970s, because it featured a black character (a child named Peter, the protagonist of the book) in a book by a white man. Keats was also accused of stereotyped characters. However, it was soon recognized to be a classic of children's literature and so this award-winning book became an inspiration to Keats and he found a home in children's literature for his illustrations that he loved so much. He also went on to create more books about Peter (Engel & Freedman, 1995; Silvey, 2002).
Whistle for Willie, published in 1964, is about a young boy attempting to whistle but not having any luck at it. He explores the streets still trying to whistle and eventually goes home to put on his dad's hat and pretend to be a grown who can whistle. The end of the story shows the triumph of the character's success at whistling due to his never-give-up attitude.
Goggles, published in 1968, is based on memories Keats had as young boy growing up on the streets of Brooklyn. Keats's older brother, Willie, always protected him from the bullies who teased, pushed him around, and gave him wrist burns (Engel &Freedman, 1995). The stories characters, Peter, Archie, and their dog Willie, find motorcycle goggles and are excited to run home and play with them when some bullies attempt to take the goggles away. Before Peter and Archie get into a fist fight, and Willie snatches the goggles up and runs away. Peter and Archie eventually meet up in their secret hideout and discover Willie there with the goggles.
Apt 3, published in 1971, is a story based on a childhood encounter Keats had with his downstairs neighbor who was blind. Keats went to investigate the harmonica noise he kept hearing and was invited into his neighbors apartment to drink tea and visit. Keats and the blind man eventually became friends and took many walks together. This story provides readers with sounds, feelings, smells, and even the excitement of exploring the multiple levels of an apartment complex in the city of Brooklyn.
Pet Show, published in 1972, features Keats as one of the characters. This is only one book of several where he is seen in the illustrations. The neighborhood children are very excited for the upcoming pet show; everyone will receive a ribbon for their entry. Archie can't seem to find his cat for the pet show, and time is running out. The story ends with Archie finding his cat with an old lady whose cat has won the pet award. The old lady offers Archie the ribbon, but Archie allows her to keep it with a smile on his face.
Louie's Search, published in 1980, is about Louie who is falsely accused of stealing a music maker. In the process of being scolded and found innocent by the scary red-bearded man named Barney, they become friends and eventually Louie's mother and Barney marry and they live happily ever after. This story has very colorful and bright illustrations. You feel as sense of happiness and joy as you read this book despite the angry red-bearded man named Barney.
Engel, D. & Freedman, F. (1995). Ezra Jack Keats: A Biography with Illustrations. Silver Moon Press.
Keats, E. J., (2002). Keats neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats treasury. New York, NY: Vikings/Penguin Books.
Nevinskas, N. (2004). "Keats Creations." School arts: The art education magazine for teachers, 103 (6), 28.
Zeece, P. (2003). The personal value of literature: Finding books children love. Early childhood education journal, 31(2), 133-138.
de Grummond Children's Literature Collection. Authors and Illustrators on the Web: Keats, Ezra Jack. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from http://www.lib.usm.edu/~degrum/html/relatedsites/rs-authorsillust.shtml.
Educational Book & Media Association. EBMA's Top 100 Authors: Keats, Ezra Jack. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from http://www.edupaperback.org/showauth.cfm?authid=32.
Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. About Ezra. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org.