Ezra Jack Keats was an American writer and illustrator of children's books. He won the 1963 Caldecott Medal for illustrating The Snowy Day, which he also wrote. It is considered one of the most important American books of the 20th century.
Keats is best known for introducing multiculturalism into mainstream American children's literature. He was one of the first children’s book authors to use an urban setting for his stories and he developed the use of collage as a medium for illustration.
Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz on March 11, 1916 in East New York, Brooklyn, the third child of Polish-Jewish immigrants Benjamin Katz and Augusta Podgainy. The family was very poor. Jack, as he was known, was artistically gifted from an early age, joyfully made pictures out of whatever scraps of wood, cloth and paper that he could collect. Benjamin Katz, who worked as a waiter, tried to discourage his son, insisting that artists lived terrible, impoverished lives. Nevertheless, he sometimes brought home tubes of paint, claiming, “A starving artist swapped this for a bowl of soup.”
With little encouragement at home, Keats sought validation for his skills at school and learned about art at the public library. Keats attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where he won a national contest run by Scholastic for an oil painting depicting hobos warming themselves around a fire. At his graduation, in January 1935, he was to receive the senior class medal for excellence in art. Two days before the ceremony, Benjamin Katz died in the street of a heart attack. When Keats identified his father's body, he later wrote, “I found myself staring deep into his secret feelings. There in his wallet were worn and tattered newspaper clippings of the notices of the awards I had won. My silent admirer and supplier, he had been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship and his real pride in my work.”
His father's death curtailed his dream of attending art school. For the remainder of the Great Depression until he was drafted for military service in World War II, Keats took art classes when he could and worked at a number of jobs, most notably as a mural painter under the New Deal program the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and as a comic book illustrator. At Fawcett Publications, he illustrated backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip. He spent his military service (1943–45) designing camouflage patterns for the U.S. Army Air Force. In 1947 he petitioned to legally change his name to Ezra Jack Keats, in reaction to the anti-Semitic prejudice of the time.
Keats spent most of 1949 painting and studying in Paris, realizing a long-deferred dream of working as an artist. After returning to New York, he focused on earning a living as a commercial artist, undoubtedly influenced by his father's anxieties. His illustrations began to appear in Reader's Digest, The New York Times Book Review, Collier's andPlayboy, and on the jackets of popular books. His work was displayed in Fifth Avenue store windows, and the Associated American Artists Gallery, in New York City, gave him exhibitions in 1950 and 1954.
In his unpublished autobiography, Keats wrote, “I didn't even ask to get into children's books.” In fact, he was asked to do so by Elizabeth Riley of Crowell, which brought out his first children's title, Jubilant for Sure, written by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing, in 1954. To prepare for the assignment, Keats went to rural Kentucky, where the story takes place, to sketch. Many children's books followed, including the Danny Dunn adventure series, by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin, and an ethnographic series by Tillie S. Pine and Joseph Levine, beginning with The Indians Knew. All told, Keats illustrated nearly 70 books written by other authors.
In 1983, Keats died at the age of 67 following a heart attack. His last projects included designing the sets for a musical version of his book The Trip (which would later become the stage production Captain Louie), designing a poster for The New Theater of Brooklyn, and writing and illustrating a retelling of the folktale “The Giant Turnip.” He never married and often said that his children were his characters.
After his death, the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which he had established in 1964, became active. Under the administration of his close friends Martin and Lillie Pope, the foundation was dedicated to preserving the quality of Keats' books and artworks, promoting children's literacy and creativity, and maintaining quality and diversity in children's literature. The Keats Archive, which includes original artwork and correspondence, is housed at the University of Southern Mississippi as part of the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection.
List of Books
- My Dog is Lost! (1960)
- The Snowy Day (1962)
- Whistle for Willie (1964)
- John Henry, An American Legend (1965)
- Jennie's Hat (1966)
- Peter's Chair (1967)
- A Letter to Amy (1968)
- Goggles! (1969)
- Hi, Cat! (1970)
- Apt. 3 (1971)
- Pet Show! (1972)
- Skates! (1973)
- Psst! Doggie- (1973)
- Dreams (1974)
- Kitten for a Day (1974)
- Louie (1975)
- The Trip (1978)
- Maggie and the Pirate (1979)
- Louie's Search (1980)
- Regards to the Man in the Moon (1981)
- Clementina's Cactus (1982)
- One Red Sun, A Counting Book (1998)