When Ezra Jack Keats began creating children's books in the 1960s, he noticed something missing from the genre and chose to correct it.
Keats had already illustrated several kids' books and was starting his second when he made a simple but important decision: The main character would be black. "None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kids-except for token blacks in the background," Keats later wrote. "My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along."
The character, Peter, debuted in The Snowy Day, which won a Caldecott Medal. Perhaps the strongest statement Keats made about race at the time was making ethnicity (his first book's protagonist was a Puerto Rican boy) completely incidental to the story. The books’ themes are universal: In the case of Snowy Day, a boy discovers the joy of angel-making, sledding, and all the other things kids do on a free winter day.
The child of immigrants, Keats grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, in relative poverty. Although his gifts with pencil and paint were obvious from a young age, his father, a waiter, discouraged his artistic ambitions, fearing it would be too hard for his son to make a living. When he brought home tubes of paint for Ezra, he would tell the boy that hard-up artist customers had swapped their paint for soup. When his father died, however, Keats discovered a stash of newspaper clippings: his father had carefully saved the notices of all of Ezra’s artistic prizes and achievements.
Once established as a creator of children’s books, Keats developed a stable of characters -- including the adventurous Peter, a shy boy named Louie, and a sympathetic girl named Amy -- who often resurfaced over the author's twenty-odd years of storymaking. Often taking place in urban settings and illustrated in Keats's hallmark gouache and collage style, the stories chronicle the discoveries, pleasures, and fears of being a kid: coping with a new sibling, befriending a previously scary blind neighbor, entering a pet show, or finding a pair of goggles.
Keats tackled the topic of single parenthood in Louie's Search, where Louie accidentally discovers a husband for his mom. Even when characters behave oddly or badly (as in the case of Louie's new dad, who initially accuses the boy of stealing from his junk truck), their innate goodness is always revealed. Each title exemplifies Keats's faith in people.
With his muted, evocative images and his commitment towards diversity, Keats made children's literature vivid and human in a way it had never been before.
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In the late 1930s, Keats worked as a mural painter on WPA projects. He entered the Army in 1943, where he designed camouflage patterns.
Later, Keats created five greeting cards about peace for UNICEF's first greeting card season ... A million cards were sold that year.
The de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi is the sole repository for Ezra Jack Keats's archives.
A life-size bronze statue of Peter, Willie, and Peter's chair sits in Imagination Playground in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
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