Ezra Jack Keats: Biography & Books

Instructor: Colleen Bramucci

Colleen has taught secondary school and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you will learn about American children's book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, his early life and career, the success he found following an unexpected career path, and the memorable characters he created along the way.

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

The thrill of crunching in the snow on a perfectly snowy day. The fear of being replaced after the impending birth of a sibling. The courage it takes to invite a little girl - eww!!! - to your no-girls-allowed birthday party. Such wonderfully ordinary situations that arise in the life of a child are made magical in the vibrant colors, creative collages, and simple yet powerful words of children's book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats. Ezra was enormously famous in his own time, and much beloved to this day, for his artistic techniques, the subject matter of his works, and the diversity of his characters.

Ezra's Early Life

Jacob Ezra Katz, or 'Jack' as he was called by his parents, was born in March 11, 1916. Jack would later change his name to Ezra Jack Keats, fearing that the anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) he had experienced as a young person would hold him back in his career. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, raising young Jack and his older siblings in Brooklyn, New York, a neighborhood that would feature prominently in Ezra's picture books for children, and a neighborhood that would later bestow honors upon its accomplished native son.

Ezra loved to draw and paint, even from an early age. His father hoped that maybe Ezra could parlay this talent into a 'real' job as a sign painter, but Ezra had other ideas - art school among them. Yet winning a national art contest at age 16 and earning three scholarships were not enough to help Ezra achieve his art school dream. Growing up poor in Brooklyn amidst the Great Depression, Ezra had several strikes against his pursuit of a career in the fine arts. In 1935, familial tragedy struck in what could have been a final blow to his dream: Ezra's father died, effectively forcing Ezra to find real employment to support his newly-widowed mother.

Getting a 'Real' Job

Ezra did find artistic employment through the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives to pull the country out of the depths of the Great Depression. He also worked for Fawcett Publications, drawing backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip. During World War II, his time in the Army was spent creating camouflage designs. After the war, he continued to find work as a commercial artist, with illustrations featured on the covers of magazines like Reader's Digest and Playboy and books, while also teaching illustration.

Ezra continued to do well enough in this line of employment that he had never even considered working with children's books until, quite by accident, a woman literally walked into his life. The editorial director of Crowell Publishing noticed some of Ezra's artwork displayed in a 5th Avenue bookstore window in Manhattan. After learning about the artist, she asked him to illustrate for her company. And so Ezra Jack Keats' career as a children's book illustrator - and later author - began to take off.

An Unexpected Career Path

From the beginning of his career in children's literature, Ezra stood out among his peers - not only for his beautiful and unique artistry, but also for the diversity of his cast of characters. His first co-written book, My Dog is Lost! (1960) features a Puerto Rican boy newly arrived to New York City, searching for his lost dog.

The Snowy Day

Ezra's first sole project, The Snowy Day (1962), earned him fame, success, and accolades that would last beyond his own lifetime. Ezra was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1963 for the artistry of The Snowy Day. This prestigious honor is bestowed annually upon the artist of the most distinguished children's picture book of the year. Libraries and schools across the country dedicate entire units of study or annual celebrations to The Snowy Day. Ask almost any kindergartener in school about The Snowy Day, and she will tell you all about Peter and his most thrilling experience in the snow.

What makes The Snowy Day so special? First, Ezra used an incredible combination of artistic technique in the picture book, most notably collages with wallpaper, fabric, stamps, and other materials. Children's books simply did not feature such quality of fine art at the time of The Snowy Day's publication. Second, Ezra's simple yet beautiful story is credited as being the first modern picture book for children to present an African American lead character. Peter, the main character of The Snowy Day, is a little African American boy, around 4 years old, who wakes up to find freshly fallen snow in his neighborhood. He drags his feet in the snow, makes snow angels, longs to be part of the big boy's snowball fight, and stashes a snowball in his pocket for tomorrow. The innocence and playfulness of Peter's day appeals to both children and adults. Ezra explained that he noticed none of the main characters in the books he illustrated were ever minorities, so he felt that he should make Peter an African American, because all children deserve to see someone like themselves in a picture book.

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