Ezra Jack Keats was a collage artist and a writer and illustrator of children’s books. His most famous book, The Snowy Day, is considered one of the most important books of the 20th century. It introduced multiculturalism into mainstream American children’s books.
Jacob Ezra Keats grew up in New York City. His family was very poor, but “Jack” loved city life. And he loved making art. He made pictures on any scraps of wood, cloth, and paper he could collect. Once, he even made a drawing right on his mom’s kitchen tabletop. She was so proud of her son that she would life up the tablecloth to show it off when friends came over. Jack’s father was discouraging though. He said that artists lived difficult lives. Nevertheless, Benjamin Katz was secretly proud of his son. He sometimes brought home tubes of paint for Jack claiming, “A starving artist swapped this for a bowl of soup.”
Jack couldn’t afford to go to art school. He studied art though by visiting the public library, reading books, going to museums, and collecting interesting things that he could use to make art. He found jobs making comic books, signs, and murals. During World War II, he served the country by designing camouflage patterns for the Army. After the war, he studied art in Paris and Japan. In reaction to anti-semitism after the war, he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats.
When Ezra returned to New York, he pursued a career as a commercial artist. His illustrations appeared in Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, and on the jackets of popular books. His work was displayed in store windows and he received to gallery shows in 1950 and 1954.
In his unpublished autobiography, Keats wrote “I didn’t even ask to get into children’s books.” A publisher invited him to draw the first one, Jubilant for Sure, written by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing. He traveled to rural Kentucky to sketch the locations of the story. Keats illustrated nearly 70 books by other authors. But talking with friends inspired Ezra to write his own book. He looked around for ideas and found a picture he had saved of a little African American boy. The picture inspired him to make the star of his book a black boy also. The Snowy Day became a very famous book, loved by kids and grown-ups all over the world. He went on to write more than twenty of his own books, filled with all kinds of amazing stories, interesting people, and beautiful art.
To make artwork for his books, Ezra put together bits and pieces of all the different materials he collected, like paper fans, leaves, doilies, and painted paper. He used marbled paper to make sky. He used a toothbrush to platter paint in tiny dots.
Ezra Jack Keats won many awards, including the Caldecott Medal for the Snowy Day, and was once even given a parade by some of his fans. Today, his books are still loved by both kids and adults worldwide. From now until September 7th, you can see an exhibition of his work at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Portrait of Ezra Jack Keats drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes.