When you say the name “Keats” I can bet you that there is a divide of people, some think of John Keats while others will think of Ezra Keats. While both authors are intensely talented gentlemen… both follow very different subject matter. Ezra Jack Keats is known as the Caldecott Medal award winner of 1963… and possibly as the first great author to introduce multiculturalism into popular children’s literature.
Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz on March 11th, 1916 in Brooklyn. The third child to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents, Keats led far from an idyllic childhood. The family was very, very poor – leading the artistic child to begin his creative energy making art out of scraps of trash (wood, fabric, etc.) that he found near his home. While his father was working as a waiter, he tried to dissuade his son from entering the arts, explaining how tough it was to make a living doing such things. That being said, Benjamin Katz (his father) also would bring the occasional paint tubes home with him, claiming that a “starving artist” had traded it for a meal. In this way, Keats knew he was supported even when words told him otherwise. Keats won a Scholastic national contest when he was just a teenager, for his illustration of a group of homeless men warming themselves by a fire.
After school, Keats worked several jobs while illustrating on the side, taking art classes when he could. He was drafted into service during WWII, where he put his artistic skills to work, creating camouflage patterns for the soldiers’ uniforms. Sadly, around this time is when Keats legally changed his name due to antisemitic sentiment in the world. After the war, Keats spent a year in Paris working as an artist, realizing that for the first time it truly could be a way of life for him. Upon moving back to the United States, Keats threw himself into his art, working as a commercial artist helping illustrate books and articles for publications like Reader’s Digest, The New York Times Book Review and Playboy, to name just a few. It was in doing this that publisher Elizabeth Riley saw a book cover illustration done by Keats in a store window in 1954, and approached him asking him to illustrate children’s books for her. Keats illustrated over 70 children’s books for other authors throughout the next years, until in 1960 he co-wrote one of the stories to follow along with his illustrations. His first protagonist was a young Puerto Rican boy named Juanito who lost his dog.
By 1963, Keats was still bothered by the lack of children of color as protagonists in books available. He wrote and illustrated The Snowy Day, and used a young African-American child protagonist named Peter as his subject, stating that is where people of color “should have been all along” (ezra-jack-keats.org). That same year, Keats’ Snowy Day won the highest medal a children’s picture book could – the Caldecott Medal.
Keats continued writing and illustrating until his death in 1983. His books follow a myriad of subjects and characters (Peter featured heavily in a few), where the children in his stories are sometimes faced with true hardships or problems and learn and mature through their pages. While it is true that winning the Caldecott Medal made Keats a household name… his inclusivity and love for all make his stories stand the test of time. Happy Birthday to a true ally – Ezra Jack Keats.