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The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats

September 9, 2011 - January 29, 2012

Coming of Age in Brooklyn
Ezra Jack Keats’s impoverished childhood was permeated with the flavors of the Old Country. His memoirs are filled with recollections of a devout but thunderous neighborhood tzadik (“righteous man”), of listening to sentimental Yiddish songs, and of falling asleep to the sound of his father reading aloud from the “Bintel Brief,” the Forward column that dispensed advice to immigrants.

When young Jack first showed artistic talent by doodling on the kitchen tabletop, his mother covered the drawings with the Sabbath tablecloth, proudly unveiling them for visiting neighbors. Benjamin Katz’s attitude toward his son’s artistic inclination was not as warm. While he often brought the boy cheap paints and brushes, he also discouraged him by pretending that he had obtained the supplies from starving artists in exchange for food at the Greenwich Village diner where he worked. The ploy did not work: Keats’s appreciation for beauty in the ordinary developed early, and art afforded him an escape from the harsh circumstances of life at home.

It is only in his later works that Keats directly confronts his early life. In 1969, in Goggles!, he revisits the traumatic recollection of being bullied as a child. He then mines his memories of tenement life in Apt. 3 (1971) and Dreams (1973) before delving into his deepest inner feelings and fears in a series of books featuring an introverted protagonist named Louie, a self-portrait of sorts. To convey the dramatic nuances of these autobiographical forays, he relies heavily on painting, his medium of choice in his early days as a budding artist.

Bringing the Background to the Foreground
In the 1940s, Keats had a job inking in the backgrounds for comic books. He saw this experience as a metaphor for his outsider childhood: “I thought I was great as a background man. I’d been in the background for a long time, and figured I might as well earn some money at it.” Throughout his life, he identified with the downtrodden.

He admired the nineteenth-century artist Honoré Daumier, especially his images of the disenfranchised. His influence on Keats is reflected in Shantytown, an early painting of unemployed men during the Depression. Keats’s art was always socially engaged: in the late 1930s, he worked as an assistant mural painter for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and later documented the end of the coal-mining era in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

After serving in World War II, Jack Ezra Katz changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats, probably in response to pervasive antisemitism. He briefly studied painting in Paris on the GI Bill—a rare opportunity for the primarily self-taught artist—and by the early 1950s he was working as an illustrator for Reader’s Digest, The New York Times Book Review, Collier’s, and other publications. “I didn’t even ask to get into children’s books,” he recalled, but when a book cover he had designed caught the eye of an editor, commissions started to pour in. He first had success as an illustrator for other authors.

Keats: My Dog is Lost!
Ezra Jack Keats
“Juanito bent his legs to show how his dog ran (patizambo!)”
Page from dummy book for My Dog Is Lost!, 1960
Watercolor, pencil, and crayon on paper
9 3/8 x 13 15/16 in. (23.8 x 35.4 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Observing that few children's books showcased an African-American or other minority child as the main character, Keats was prompted to write his first book, My Dog Is Lost! (1960, coauthored with Pat Cherr), which featured Juanito, a Puerto Rican boy. This groundbreaking multicultural story led Keats to his next creation, The Snowy Day (1962).

The Snowy Day and Its Reception
Published at the height of the American civil-rights movement and winner of the prestigious Caldecott Medal, The Snowy Day (1962) was the first book Keats both illustrated and solely authored. Inspired by memories of snowy days in his childhood, when Brooklyn would turn “very quiet, very poetic and so different that I felt it in my bones,” the gentle tale of Peter’s wonderment at his first snowfall became a milestone, featuring the first African-American protagonist in a full-color picture book. For the illustrations Keats had planned to use patterned paper as a supplement to painting, but as “one swatch of material suggested another,” he turned fully to collage, a technique he had never used before.

Keats: The Snowy Day
Ezra Jack Keats
“After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside”
Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962
Collage and paint on board
10 x 20 in. (25.4 x 50.8 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Keats did not want Peter to be “a white child colored brown. I wanted him to be in the book on his own, not through the benevolence of white children or anyone else,” he explained. “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” Only a few years earlier, the author Helen Kay had been forced by her publisher to transform a young black protagonist in one of her stories into a poor white child. Now, however, the Viking Press editor Annis Duff embraced The Snowy Day; her decision to publish it in full color, despite the high cost, was a great victory in mainstream children’s literature and an important step in overcoming black invisibility in the field.

Above all, Keats wanted to convey an idea that had value for all children, regardless of race: “the joy of being a little boy alive on a certain kind of day, of being for that moment.”

After The Snowy Day was published, “many, many people thought I was black,” said Keats. “As a matter of fact, many were disappointed that I wasn’t!” Asked once for “the white edition of The Snowy Day,” he answered: “Like life, there is only one edition.” The book was immediately welcomed by educators and critics and embraced by the public. But as the civil-rights movement entered a new phase of black cultural consciousness in the 1960s, it began to meet with some criticism. “The book brought me a host of joys but also a few woes,” the artist said.

In 1965 a Saturday Review article, “The All White World of Children’s Literature,” criticized Keats for not addressing Peter’s race in the text. In the 1970s, another commentator called The Snowy Day a “high point of the integrationist civil rights movement,” and an attempt to show that “black kids were human by presenting them as colored white kids.” Such critics, viewing the book a decade after it was published, argued that it “did little to celebrate cultural difference, instill racial pride in black children, or challenge the supremacy of white readers,” in the words of the scholar Maurice Berger. Yet in 1962—at a time when many states still had segregationist laws—the most urgent need for Keats had been to treat a black character equally to a white one. By the 1980s the cultural landscape had shifted again. “How many literary light years separate Little Black Sambo from The Snowy Day?” a critic wrote. “Although we have been led to believe by twenty years of reporting that Keats’s work was special because of his use of collage, it is his vision of the universal human spirit as personified in one pre-school black youngster that marks this book for attention.”

Throughout these debates, The Snowy Day has remained a deeply loved and profoundly influential book. Keats would have been moved by the words of the Native American author Sherman Alexie, who, as a child on an Indian reservation in the 1970s, had a transformative encounter with Peter: “It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character—a character who resembled me physically and spiritually, in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation.”

The Gritty City Made Beautiful
“I love city life,” Keats once said. “All the beauty that other people see in country life, I find taking walks and seeing the multitudes of people. . . . I was a city kid. I wouldn’t think of setting [my stories] anywhere I didn’t know.” A critic described a stroll with the artist as a journey of discovery, an experience similar to entering his fictional world: “Before walking with Keats most people might notice one, or at most two, of the things he points out; afterwards, even alone, there’s little you will miss. The special vision of this special man is in his books as well. He gives his readers colors and textures and objects that can forever change the way they view the world.”

Keats: A Letter to AmyEzra Jack Keats, Dust jacket
Final illustration for A Letter to Amy, 1968
Watercolor, collage and paint on board, 10 1/4 x 21 1/2 in. (26 x 54.6 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Keats’s urban settings, however run-down or occasionally moody, always include a nurturing presence: bright colors and patterns, loving friends and family. In the Peter books, Peter’s dog, Willie, is close by to offer him comfort and companionship; his friend Archie can rely on him when it comes to fending off bullies or finding his elusive cat.

Keats uses vibrant collage and rich acrylic paint, often applied in thick impasto, to superb effect. Graffiti-covered walls, trashed umbrellas, abandoned bits of lumber, and overflowing garbage cans all have an unexpected beauty, and it is in these elements that Keats’s poetry lies—in the overlooked and unimportant, which he moves from the background to center stage.

Spirituality, Nature, and Asian Art
Some of Keats’s most introspective work was inspired by the Asian art and culture he so admired. He especially loved the traditional Japanese haiku form, as reflected in his exquisitely pared-down illustrations for In a Spring Garden (1965), an anthology of haiku poems, with silhouetted birds and incandescent skies of hand-marbled paper. He mastered this ancient Chinese craft, a technique in which oily paints and inks are floated on the surface of a dish of water, into which a sheet of paper is dipped, to achieve intricate patterns.

Keats: In a Spring Garden
Ezra Jack Keats, Dust jacket
Final illustration for In a Spring Garden, edited by Richard Lewis, 1965
Collage on board, 12 7/16 x 22 3/8 (31.6 x 56.8 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Like the haiku poets, Keats expressed his reverence for life through his delicate explorations of the beauty of nature. He considered God Is in the Mountain (1966) “the book that sums up the meaning of the world for me.” He both selected and illustrated this collection of poetic sayings about life, nature, and the divine, which he gathered from different religions, cultures, and times. His art for the book—the most abstract and tonally subdued that he produced—meshes seamlessly with the text’s spiritual insights.

Keats: John Henry an American Legend
Ezra Jack Keats, “A hush settled over the hills. The sky swirled soundlessly round the moon”
Final illustration for John Henry: An American Legend, 1965
Collage, paint, and pencil on board, 13 x 20 1/2 in. (33 x 52 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Keats’s yearning for spirituality, his interest in Asian art, and his respect for nature all coalesce in the opening illustration for John Henry: An American Legend. He illuminates his own retelling of the story with a magical first scene in which the night sky, stunningly rendered in marbled paper, pays tribute to the birth of the mythic American folk hero.

Louie as Self-Portrait
Louie, the protagonist of four picture books, wrestles with many of the same feelings of isolation and invisibility that had hindered Keats’s early emotional and artistic growth. The first book in the series, Louie (1975), is the story of a lonely boy who is captivated by a puppet named Gussie. The autobiographical connections are clear: Gussie was the nickname of Keats’s mother, Augusta Katz, with whom he had a troubled relationship. She was not a loving woman, although she supported his talent. “The only time anyone knew that I was around was when I drew pictures,” Keats said of his early years. Louie similarly finds an outlet in art making.

Keats: louie's Search
Ezra Jack Keats, “Louie passed quite a few people”
Final illustration for Louie’s Search, 1980
Paint and collage on board, 12 x 22 1/8 in. (30.5 x 56.2 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

At the opening of Louie’s Search (1980), the hitherto withdrawn and fatherless protagonist takes matters into his own hands. “Maybe someone would notice him—someone he’d like for a father.” His search leads him to Barney, a larger-than-life junkman based on a character from Keats’s childhood, a tempestuous religious Jew known as Tzadik. Barney and Louie’s mother fall in love, and the boy gets the second parent he has longed for. In Regards to the Man in the Moon (1981), Louie’s new stepfather is a moving tribute to Tzadik, whose piety and conviction inspired young Keats to pursue his own passion for art.

Louie’s passage from emotional rags to riches enables the artist to vicariously “correct” his own childhood, providing his character with the stable home Jack Katz never had.

Keats: The Trip
Ezra Jack Keats, “Louie took them for a ride on his plane”
Final illustration for The Trip, 1978
Collage, paint, and crayon on board, 12 x 22 in. (30.5 x 55.9 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Epilogue: A Life Transformed by Art
The finales for the Louie books provide a moving epilogue to Keat's personal and artistic trajectory. At the conclusion of Louie, the boy runs toward Gussie the puppet, arms wide open. It is no accident that Gussie was named for Keats’s emotionally distant mother: he closes his story with the very embrace he had longed for as a child. At the end of Louie’s fantastic journey in The Trip, Keats smiles from a window in his old Brooklyn neighborhood (above). And in the final scene of Louie’s Search, the artist casts himself at least twice: as a boy, in the character of Louie, and as the truck driver in the parade celebrating the wedding of Louie’s mother to Barney the junkman. A waving bystander sporting a moustache may also be Keats, as spectator of his own improved childhood.

Keats: Louie's Search
Ezra Jack Keats, “Barney and Peg got married!”
Final illustration for Louie’s Search, 1980
Paint and collage on board, 12 x 22 1/16 in. (30.5 x 56 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Keats: Regards to the Man in the Moon
Ezra Jack Keats, “The next day, they told
everybody about their adventures”
Detail, final illustration for Regards to the
Man in the Moon
, 1981

Paint, collage, and watercolor on board
12 7/16 x 25 7/8 in. (31.6 x 65.7 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s
Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives,
The University of Southern Mississippi
But it is in the last spread for Regards to the Man in the Moon, published two years before his death, that Keats fully affirms his belief in the power of art to change a life. For the first and only known time he visually declares himself to be an artist by inserting himself into the picture, brush in hand. Together with Barney and Peg, he admires a scene of his own creation, looking affectionately at the children at play, their lives transformed through creativity and imagination, as his own had been.

Claudia J. Nahson, Curator

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