Ezra Jack Keats: a lyrical name I first saw on a book called The Snowy Day in a children’s literature class in college. I think I was a junior, and this was one of the first classes I’d taken via the college of education that I absolutely loved. The professor was passionate about her subject, and she passed that on to us in class. I couldn’t wait to have my own classroom full of books to share with students.
The Caldecott Medal is an award given to the book voted that year to have the “best” illustrations. The Snowy Day was the winner in 1963–but I had never seen it until college. That seemed so strange to me, I read any book I could get my hands on as a child. I was taken by the simple illustrations mixed with collage, and wondered about the author.
Looking at them now, they’re just as fresh and joyous as they were 40 years ago when they were created. I’m fascinated by the New York art scene that produced these classic children’s illustrators. Here’s a little background on Ezra Jack Keats, via a bio from the Greenville, RI Public Library website.
- Jacob Ezra Katz was born on March 11, 1916 in Brooklyn, New York to Benjamin and Augusta Katz, two Polish immigrants born in Warsaw.
- He was the third child born to his parents.
- He had an older brother named Willie and an older sister named Mae
- His father Benjamin was a waiter in a coffee shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Keats expressed an interest in the arts at an early age. “I think I started painting when I was about four years old. I really dedicated myself to what I did, avidly and lovingly. I drew on and colored everything that came across my path, with the indulgent approval of my mother.”
His favorite place to draw was at the kitchen table. In fact, he drew directly onto the kitchen table top. His mother took a tablecloth and covered Keats’ murals and would show the drawings off to visitors at every opportunity.
His work has a mural-like quality, even on a small page.
Keats’ father would often come home from work with a package of brushes or some paints for Keats to use. Benjamin Keats also supported his son by taking him to museums to see famous paintings. The painting Third Class Carriage by Honore Daumier swept the young boy away when he saw it.
When Keats was eight years old, he realized that in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the boys started to treat him with respect when they realized that he could paint.
He was nine when he first started telling stories. The other kids loved the stories so much that they would beg him to tell them more.
- Keats attended public schools in New York City, but he never received any formal training in art.
- As a high school student at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Keats won a prize for one of his paintings in the National Scholastic contest and was offered a scholarship to the Art Students’ League as a result.
- In 1937 he secured a job as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
- In 1940, he found another position as a comic book illustrator for Five-Star Comics.
- In 1942 he began working on the staff of Fawcett Publications illustrating background for “Captain Marvel Adventures,” a comic book.
- On April 13, 1943, Keats joined the United States Air Corps. Taking advantage of his skill as an artist, the Army trained him to design camouflage patterns.
It was on February 8, 1948 that Keats had his name legally changed from Jacob Ezra Katz to Ezra Jack Keats, possibly a reaction to anti-Semitism of the time.
Following the war, Keats found work as an illustrator. He also was an instructor at the School for Visual Arts in New York City from 1947 to 1948, and at the Workshop School in New York City from 1955 though 1957.
- He went to Paris in 1949, and supported himself by painting.
- Keats started his career as an illustrator of children’s books in 1954 with the publication of Jubilant for Sure by Elizabeth Hubbard Lansing.
- He illustrated books for others until about 1960.
The first book he both wrote and illustrated was The Snowy Day, which was published in 1962 by Viking Press. It’s rare for an author to win the Caldecott for a first book. The book was noted not just for its art, but for its treatment of the main character, an African American boy named Peter. Peter appeared in six more books by Keats. He grew from a small boy in The Snowy Day to being a teenager in Pet Show. Peter was inspired by a picture of a little boy Keats had seen in the May 13th, 1940 issue of Life Magazine.
Keats illustrated thirty-three books, twenty-two of which he also wrote himself. His books have been translated into sixteen languages including Arabic, Danish, French, German, Japanese, and Norwegian.
Ezra Jack Keats died in a New York hospital of a heart attack on May 6, 1983. While Keats had never married or had any children of his own , he always considered the characters in his books to be his children.
Take a look at some of his beautiful work.
And this is so cute! A short film
inspired by The Snowy Day, starring the filmmaker’s little brother.