Ezra Jack Keats knew from childhood that he wanted to be an artist. While verbally downgrading the idea, Keats' father, a waiter, supported him by providing his with painting materials. Despite being offered three scholarships after high school, Keats did not have much, if any, formal art training. He did paint murals for WPA projects in the 1930s and went on to become a comic book illustrator. During World War II, Keats was a camouflage expert in the US Air Corps.
After the war, Keats became a successful artist and illustrator. His work was exhibited at the Associated Artists Galleries in New York. In 1954, Keats illustrated his first children's book, Jubilant for Sure, by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing. He went on to illustrate dozens of children's books during the next decade. In fact, during his career, Ezra Jack Keats wrote and/or illustrated more than 85 children's books.
The book that established his reputation as both an author and an illustrator was The Snowy Day. Keats received the prestigious Caldecott Medal for 1963. The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, which is a division of the American Library Association, "to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children."
The Snowy Day and its main character, Peter, were especially important to Keats. During his many years of creating illustrations for other authors, he had never seen an African American child as the hero. He determined that when he wrote his own books, a black child would be the hero.
Keats wrote a total of seven books featuring Peter between 1962 and 1972:
- The Snowy Day
- Whistle for Willie
- Peter's Chair
- A Letter to Amy
- Hi Cat!
- Pet Show.
The entire Ezra Jack Keats Archive is housed at the University of Southern Mississippi as part of the deGrummond Children's Literature Collection. According to the University, "Holdings include manuscripts, typescripts, sketches, dummies, illustrations, and proofs for 37 books written and/or illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats." The deGrummond Collection's Ezra Jack Keats virtual exhibit includes information on how Keats went about developing his books, his biography, and a variety of original materials. The site provides a wonderful opportunity to see original illustrations, storyboards, dummies of books, sketches, and typescripts. This is a fascinating look at some of the stages in creating a book.
One of the wonderful things about anniversaries is that publishers often create special books in their honor. That's the case with Keat's Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury, published in 2002 in honor of the 40th anniversary of The Snowy Day. This collection contains ten of his best stories, along with an essay by Anita Silvey and information on Keats' influence on children's literature. See my review for more information.
Ezra Jack Keats died in 1983 at the age of sixty-seven. He is remembered as something of a pioneer in his use of minority children as main characters and in his use of mixed media collages to illustrate his stories. It is a measure of the man that the praise that meant the most to him came in the letters from children who found themselves in his books.