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March 11: Ezra Jack Keats

March 11, 2014

11193742-largeEzra Jack Keats (Jacob Ezra Katz), who transformed children’s literature with his colorful collage-and-ink style and his introduction of African-American children as central characters, was born in poverty in Brooklyn on this date in 1916. His artistic talent was well-recognized by the time he was in high school, but poverty beset him at several junctures early in his career (particularly after his father died in 1935), deterring him from attending art school despite being awarded scholarships on three separate occasions. He made a living as a mural painter with the WPA and as a comic-book illustrator during the Depression, and was finally able to attend art school in Paris after the war. In 1962 he published The Snowy Day, which was based on a set of Life magazine photographs of a young black child in Georgia. “None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids,” said Keats, who had worked for seven years illustrating other people’s books, “except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Medal the following year and established his reputation — “My life began at age 47,” Keats said — and he both wrote and illustrated twenty-one more classic children’s books before his death in 1983. All told, he wrote and/or illustrated some 85 books. To see and hear The Snowy Day read aloud, look below.

Keats 3“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.” —Ezra Jack Keats

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