March 11, 1916, was the birthdate of American children’s book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats. His 1962 “The Snowy Day” is considered a landmark of children’s literature for being the first book to have a black child as its central character.
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Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz (he changed his name legally in 1947, in response to anti-Semitism), the third child of Benjamin Katz and the former Augusta Podgainy, Jewish immigrants from Poland. He grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.
The family was very poor, and his father tried hard to discourage Ezra, who showed artistic prowess from an early age and who began painting signs for money at age 8, from pursuing a career as an artist. Nonetheless, Ezra kept at his artwork, and while in high school, an oil painting of his depicting homeless people warming themselves around a fire won a national contest run by Scholastic Publishing.
Two days before Ezra graduated high school, in 1935, his father died of a sudden heart attack. The son had to identify Benjamin’s body. Later, he recounted how he had opened his father’s wallet and found the frayed clippings of newspaper articles reporting various awards Ezra had won.
“I found myself staring deep into his secret feelings,” he explained. “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.”
After high school, Keats took art courses while making a living as a commercial artist. His jobs included working as a mural painter for the Depression-era government program the Works Progress Administration and drawing the backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip for Fawcett Publications. During World War II, he designed camouflage for the U.S. Army.
Following the war, Keats fulfilled an ambition to spend a year in Paris and on his return to New York, worked as an illustrator for a number of magazines, as well as painting the covers of several books. When an editor for Crowell Publishing saw one of his covers in a 5th Ave. bookstore, she invited him to begin illustrating entire books. The first came out in 1954. Among the books he provided the artwork for were those in the “Danny Dunn” series.
The first book both written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats was “My Dog Is Lost,” co-written with Pat Cherr, and published in 1960. Its protagonist is a Puerto Rican child who has just arrived in New York, which he explores as he searches for his missing dog. In all of his books, the children are from minority groups.
Sensing the snow
"The Snowy Day” was the first book written by Keats on his own. Its inspiration was a 1940 series of photographs in Life magazine of a black child who was about to get inoculated.
In the story told by Keats, the child is called Peter, and we see him spending a day playing in the snow. The book’s uniqueness is not just its African-American hero, but also the collage method utilized by the artist, in which he fashioned together cutouts of paper, fabric and oilcloth, and ink applied with a toothbrush. The following year the book won the Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious honor awarded to an American children’s picture book. Just last year it was selected for an exhibition at the Library of Congress, "Books that Shaped America".
The Library described “The Snowy Day” as having “changed the field of children’s literature forever.”
The plot was undramatic, to say the least, but the book has an emotional resonance that speaks to all ages. Keats later described his goal in the book as offering “a chunk of life, the sensory experience in word and picture of what it feels like to hear your own body making sounds in the snow. Crunch...crunch...And the joy of being alive.”
“The Snowy Day” was followed by another 20 children’s books by Keats, including six more featuring young Peter. As that series progressed, and its hero grew older, the plots became increasingly sophisticated, as Peter has to negotiate the challenges of growing up and the specific hazards of urban life. The artwork too became more complex and painterly, although Keats continued to utilize collage.
Ezra Jack Keats died on May 6, 1983, after a heart attack. He was 63. He had never married or had children, but the charitable foundation he established in 1964 has continued to benefit children, operating under the directorship of the artist’s boyhood friend Martin Pope and his wife, Lillian Pope. It funds literacy and art-education programs, and has long supported various arts programs in Jerusalem.