This Day In Writing History
On March 11th, 1916, the famous American children's book writer and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was born Jacob Ezra Katz; his poor Polish-Jewish immigrant parents, Benjamin and Augusta Katz, called him Jack. As a little boy, it became evident that he was artistically gifted. In 1924, when he was eight years old, he painted a sign for a local storekeeper and was paid twenty-five cents for it.
Jack soon developed a passion for fine arts, and his dream was to become an artist. His mother was delighted, but his father was strongly opposed to him becoming an artist and constantly discouraged him, telling him that he would never make it as an artist, even though he excelled in art in elementary school and won a medal for it in junior high.
While he attended Thomas Jefferson High School, one of Jack Katz's oil paintings, which depicted unemployed men warming themselves by a fire, was selected by the Scholastic Publishing Company as the winner of its national contest. The medal he was awarded meant a lot to Jack, and was a major source of encouragement for him.
Nevertheless, his father kept discouraging him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional artist. It was the Great Depression, and Benjamin Katz didn't believe his son could earn a living as an artist. He wanted him to aim for something practical and become a professional sign painter. Once, he brought Jack some tubes of paint and told him, "If you don’t think artists starve, well, let me tell you. One man came in the other day and swapped me a tube of paint for a bowl of soup.”
At school, Jack Katz continued to excel in art. When he graduated high school, he was awarded the senior class medal for excellence in art. Not long afterward, his father collapsed on the street and died of a heart attack. The police called Jack in to identify the body. He did, and was stunned to discover that in his wallet, his father, who had derided his dream so relentlessly, kept a collection of newspaper clippings that reported on his son's artistic achievements.
Jack later told his friend, poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, that “I found myself staring deep into [my father’s] 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."
After his father's death, Jack won three scholarships to art school, but he couldn't go because he had to work to help support his family. So, during the day, he worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and by night, he took art classes when he could. He would leave the WPA three years later to work as a comic book illustrator. By 1942, he was drawing the backgrounds for the popular Captain America comic strip.
In April of 1943, Jack Katz enlisted in the Army, which took advantage of his artistic talent and trained him to design camouflage patterns. After the war ended, he returned home to New York, then left again to spend a year studying art in Paris. When he came back, he resumed his career as a professional artist. He painted covers for Reader's Digest and drew illustrations for The New York Times Book Review and magazines such as Playboy and Colliers. His oil paintings were sold via Fifth Avenue shop window displays.
Jack made good money, but he was haunted by the specter of anti-Semitism that ran rampant in America during the late 1940s and early 1950s. So, Jacob Ezra "Jack" Katz legally changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. In 1954, he embarked on a new phase of his art career when he was hired to illustrate a children's book called Jubilant For Sure, written by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing.
"I didn't even ask to get into children's books," Keats later observed. He fell into it through a contract job. His memorable illustrations were a hit, and he would be hired to illustrate many more children's books. By 1960, he had decided to write and illustrate his own. His first book, My Dog is Lost (1960), set the stage for his future works. It told the poignant story of Juanito, a little Puerto Rican boy who just arrived in New York City. He doesn't speak English, and he has lost his dog.
Two years later, Keats completed his next book, which established him as one of the greatest children's book writers of all time. The Snowy Day (1963) featured a 4-year-old black boy named Peter as its hero, as he explores his neighborhood one winter day. The progressive children's book, with its beautiful illustrations (using Keats' trademark technique that blended gouache with collage) won that year's prestigious Caldecott Award for the most distinguished picture book for children.
Keats described the genesis of The Snowy Day as follows: “Then began an experience that turned my life around—working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I’d begun to illustrate children’s books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book.”
Keats' hero, Peter, would return for six more books. The last one, A Letter To Amy (1968) finds the now preteen Peter nervous about inviting a girl - his friend Amy, whom he has a crush on - to his birthday party. So, he writes her a special letter of invitation and rushes out to mail it, braving a thunderstorm. On the way, he runs into Amy - literally - and accidentally knocks her down. Will she come to his party now? And if she does, how will the other boys react when they find out that Peter invited a girl?
Keats would write and illustrate many more classic children's books, including Whistle for Willie (1964), Jennie's Hat (1966), Apt. 3 (1971), Dreams (1974), and The Trip (1978). All together, he would write and /or illustrate over 85 children's books. The books he wrote would be translated into nineteen languages, including Japanese. Hugely popular in Japan, the city of Tokyo honored Keats with a parade. An ice skating rink in Japan was named after him to commemorate the publication of his book Skates!
Ezra Jack Keats died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 67. Though he loved children and they loved him just as much, he never married and had any of his own.
Quote Of The Day
"I wanted to show an ordinary human situation, about a boy who has a crush on a girl, and the magic of what it's like in the city when it rains... I wanted to reflect the quality of magic which transforms the city in so many ways." - Ezra Jack Keats on his children's book, A Letter To Amy (1968).
Today's video features a short documentary film about Ezra Jack Keats. Enjoy!