Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

Ezra Jack Keats

November11

As an African American child growing up in the 1960s, at a time when I didn’t see others like me in children’s books, I was profoundly affected by the expressiveness of Keats’s illustrations.               Andrea Davis Pinkney

poemThe Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1963. This honor is for the illustration of a children’s book, and Keats’s art was groundbreaking. Keats was inspired by photographs, which he had saved for over twenty years from Life magazine. The photos were of a young black boy who was going to get a shot from the doctor. In the first picture, the child emits a joyful confidence of life. This child’s spirit inspired Keats when he created the illustrations for The Snowy Day. He made a bold move by depicting a child of color in his picture book, and he opened the door for multiculturalism in children’s illustrations. This door still needs to be opened wider, but it is important to celebrate Keats’s wisdom so many years ago. Andrea Davis Pinkney does just that in A Poem for Peter, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson (Viking). This picture book biography is a work of art written in narrative verse.

Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz was born in 1916 to poor, Polish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York. From an early age, it is apparent that Jacob had a special talent for drawing. When he was in third grade, he earned money by painting signs for stores. Even though he won awards for his art in high school and was offered scholarships to art school, Jack had to stifle his dreams to help support his family when his father died. He was able to maintain his artistic growth when he began taking classes at The Art Students League that led to work during the Great Depression through the WPA. Through this government-sponsored organization, Jack was paid to paint murals. Then he was hired as a comic-book artist. During WWII, Jack used his artistic talent for the Air Force division of the Army.

When WWII ended, Jack experienced the same discrimination that many Jewish people experienced. That was when he shortened and rearranged his name to Ezra Jack Keats.

Yes, yes – Ezra Jack Keats.
Had a nice ring to it – for some.
It was a name that only hinted at
his heritage.
Only winded at where he’d
come from,
but never came out and said.                
from A Poem for Peter

He illustrated books for other authors, and then he was given the chance to write and snowyillustrate his own work. His character, Peter, came to life, that little boy from the photographs. In The Snowy Day, Keats used collage and handmade stamps, which were techniques that were new to him.

A Poem for Peter delighted me and brought me back to the wonders of The Snowy Day.

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