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Rediscovering Ezra Jack Keats

Helen Engelhardt
July 9, 2014

by Helen Engelhardt

From the Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents

Keats 3EZRA JACK KEATS IS KNOWN to many of us as the author of the modern classic children’s book, The Snowy Day, in which a young boy named Peter wakes to find his urban neighborhood transformed by a snowfall in the night. He puts on his red snowsuit and wanders alone through a magical landscape. Because Peter is brown-skinned — he was the first African-American child to appear not only in a children’s book published by a major publisher but also in a book awarded the prestigious Caldecott Award (1963) — and because Keats is not a Jewish name, many people have assumed that Ezra Jack Keats was a black artist and writer.

In fact, Keats was born in 1916 as Jacob Ezra Katz, the youngest of three children whose parents had emigrated separately from Warsaw to Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century. The family was desperately poor and highly artistic: His mother had a natural sense of color and design, his older sister made sculptures, his brother was a professional photographer. Keats’ precocious artistic gifts were therefore received by his family with an mixture of pride and anxiety. His father, who earned his living as a counterman at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, was strongly opposed to his youngest son’s artistic ambitions. At a time when children used to sell candy in order to contribute to their family income, even dreaming of becoming an artist was an irresponsible luxury. Yet by the time Keats arrived at Thomas Jefferson High School in 1932, he had already won many awards and had received his first notice in a New York newspaper.

Keats 2Martin Pope, a professor emeritus of physical chemistry at New York University who is the president of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, became a life-long friend with the artist in junior high school. “A flood of words!” is how he today describes their relationship. “We were never at a loss for words as we walked to our favorite library, the Arlington Branch in an exclusive neighborhood near Jamaica Bay. A feeling of hopelessness about our future permeated our conversations. We believed in socialism ­— not that we knew very much about it at the time. But we came from households that read the Forward. Socialism meant to us that society should be fair, that in particular, Jews should have an opportunity to live a decent life.

“The 1930s were a period of great ferment,” Pope continues. “There were soapboxes on every corner. It was a selfless and wonderful thing for young people to feel that there were solutions to all the suffering around us. Anybody who was young and didn’t have those ideals had no heart. “Ezra talked about art too. He taught me to see colors I had never seen before. Once, near the water, he told me, ‘Look at the water. You’ll see red in the blue and the green.’ And I looked and looked and looked. Sure enough, I saw red.

“Mostly we talked about intimate things, like very close brothers, but without the problems of sibling rivalry. And so we remained friends until the day he died.”

Keats 1THE DAY BEFORE Keats’ graduation from Thomas Jefferson in January, 1935, his father dropped dead in the street from a heart attack. Keats had to identify his father’s body. “There in his wallet were worn and tattered newspaper clippings of the notices of the awards I had won,” he later told his friend, the poet Lee Bennett Hopkins. “My silent admirer... he had been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship and his real pride in my work.”

Unable to go full-time to art school, despite receiving three scholarships, Keats had to work for a living — as a mural painter with the Works Progress Administration and as a comic book illustrator, working most notably on “Captain Marvel.” Drafted into the Third Air Force Division during World War II, his draftsman skills were put to use in the camouflage unit.

In 1948, following the lead of his older brother, Jacob Ezra Katz legally became Ezra Jack Keats and thereby removed, like many Jewish men of his generation, a major barrier to mainstream employment and top wages. The next year, the Veterans Administration enabled him to study art in Paris for nine months, which filled him with optimistic energy and renewed his faith in himself as an artist.

In 1954, after illustrating twenty-five books during a seven-year apprenticeship with other writers, Keats created The Snowy Day, which changed his life and children’s book publishing forever. A set of Life magazine photographs of a young black child in Georgia became the model for Peter, the central character. “None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids,” said Keats, “except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” Annis Duff, Keats’ editor at Viking, encouraged him to create the entire book in full color, regardless of expense, and to feature Peter prominently on the cover. She promoted it in Viking advertisements without ever mentioning Peter’s race.

Tears happyFrom then on, until his untimely death at age 67, he wrote and illustrated twenty-three more classic children’s books. “My life began at age 47,” Keats would say. Keats gave poetic expression to the inner worlds of the children he knew best, those of the inner city. Peter appeared in six more books, growing to adolescence; his friend Archie became the central character in a mini-series of his own; shy Louie then appeared from the sidelines and took centerstage. Their stories are not consecutive chapters in a narrative, but portray moments of conflict or achievement universal to all children (coping with bullies, developing skills, resolving sibling rivalries, being generous). Kids all over the world saw their faces and their lives in these stories.

They began writing to Keats, who replied to every letter. “Although I have no children of my own, my books, have in a way, made me a parent. Peter and his friends grow, have fun, problems, fears, successes, and I’ve been with them through it all. I love these children and it has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to raise them and see them off into the world.”

In 1973, the Warrensville Community Branch of the Cuyahoga City Public Library dedicated a children’s room in his honor. In 1977, Portland, Oregon organized an official Ezra Jack Keats Day, during which the artist led a procession of children dressed as characters in his books.

He developed a unique relationship with the children of Japan after they were introduced to three of his books by Japanese publishers. Skates!, in particular, became so popular that a group of parents and children in Kiyose City persuaded their mayor to build a roller skating rink for their town and to name it after Keats!

In the spring of 1982, Keats visited Israel for the first time with Florence Freedman, a lifelong friend who had been one of his English teachers in Thomas Jefferson High School. He had illustrated her story of escaping slaves, Two Tickets to Freedom, in 1971, and now they were planning to collaborate on a version of Brothers, a Hebrew folktale she had adapted as a children’s book.

Keats ardently supported Israel, as described in its Declaration of Independence: “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; ensuring complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” He was already seriously ill, however, with severe cardiac problems, and died on May 6, 1983 in New York Hospital with Martin Pope at his bedside, holding his hand. In his will, Keats indicated that he wanted a proportion of his estate to go to Israel as well as to secular Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Museum, YIVO, and the New Israel Fund.

“Keats was the greatest artist in children’s books,” Pope declares. “As colorist, he is unparalleled. As a child, he would tell me the names of each color, and it would come off his tongue like a kiss! His tongue would move in his mouth as though he were tasting the color when he said their names.” Among the techniques that Keats favored was the blending of gouache with collage.

The New York Public Library listed Keats as one of the hundred most important writers and illustrators of children’s books in the 20th century. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, incorporated in 1964, after the success of A Snowy Day, has forged links with museums, music schools, and children’s theaters, as well as schools, libraries and universities.

Helen Engelhardt is the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103 (2013). The audio version of the book was an Audie Finalist for Original Work in 2010. She is a poet, writer, storyteller, and independent audio producer, and serves on our magazine’s board of directors. Her article on Ezra Jack Keats appeared in our Summer 2011 issue.