The characters in Ezra’s books come from the community around him. Many of his stories portray family life, and the simple pleasures and more complex problems that children encounter every day. To create his books, Ezra drew on his own childhood experiences, from having to run from bullies to being teased by his friends for liking girls. But these are also the experiences of many children around the world. It is this commonality that underlies the continuing popularity of his books and characters.
Who lives in Ezra’s neighborhood? Peter and his dog Willie, his sister Susie, and his friends Louie, Archie, Amy and Roberto. Each of these children is central to at least one story, and each pops up as a supporting character in others. There are also the adults who make sure the children’s lives run smoothly and the gangs of older boys, who make life more difficult. In addition, Jennie, Clementina and Maggie have their own adventures in decidedly different climates.
Peter, the most famous Keats character, is introduced to readers as a youngster about 4 years old in The Snowy Day. This story, which details Peter’s adventures in the snow, is renowned for its tender quality.
Ezra skillfully weaves into his plot a sense of the dangers surrounding Peter’s protected and innocent childhood. Peter yearns to join a snowball fight with the older boys, but learns he is too small when a snowball knocks him down. While the children of Ezra’s books live in a world of their imaginations, they are consistently challenged with problems that are real and recognizable to young readers. This is one of his signature story elements: his characters are able to deal with problems, change their outlook and grow.
Peter appears in six of the books that follow The Snowy Day. He faces the problems of becoming an older brother (Peter’s Chair), anticipating the ridicule of his friends when he invites a girl to his birthday party (A Letter to Amy) and escaping a gang of bullies in his neighborhood (Goggles!).
Louie, the hero of four books, is the quietest member of the Keats community. In the book Louie, he is living alone with his mother in the city. He is silent and withdrawn, until he goes to a puppet show put on by Susie and Roberto. Overwhelmed with affection for a puppet named Gussie, Louie bursts into speech. This joyous breakthrough also allows Susie and Roberto to develop their own understanding and compassion for this lonely child.
Louie goes on to discover that he won’t lose his friends when he moves out of his old neighborhood, and that he can even make new ones (The Trip). He learns how to reach out to explore the world, stands up to false accusations and, miraculously, finds a man who learns to love him and his mother (Louie’s Search). Finally, with the help of his new father, Louie gains the confidence to reveal his imagination in the face of other kids’ taunts (Regards to the Man in the Moon).
Susie, Peter’s younger sister, appears in several Keats books, first as a newborn whom Peter reluctantly comes to accept. Growing up, she becomes a great friend to Louie, accompanying him to an imaginary galaxy in a spaceship built out of found objects (Regards to the Man in the Moon).
Archie is Peter’s best friend. Together in Hi, Cat! they attempt to stage entertainments for the kids in the neighborhood, but their efforts result in one failure after another. Archie emerges from the string of catastrophes with the greatest calm and cheer, seeing the bright side and sharing his outlook with Peter. Archie’s resourcefulness continues to develop as he grows into the boy who is able to enter a pet show even though his cat has disappeared (Pet Show!).
Amy, the title character in A Letter to Amy, is the lone girl who has to brave the crowd of boys at Peter’s birthday party. And she does, with courage, conviction and the most unusual present—she has trained her parrot to say happy birthday! She proves to the boys that girls don’t ruin birthday parties, they make them better.
In Dreams, Amy is the girl that boys can confide in. Roberto (the puppeteer in Louie and a contestant in Pet Show!) has a night of adventure after complaining to Amy how difficult it is to get to sleep. From his bedroom window, Roberto protects Archie’s cat from an angry dog on the street in a surprising way.
Then there are the girls who live far from Ezra’s familiar locales. There’s Jennie, who wears a very special hat on Sundays (Jennie’s Hat). And Clementina, who discovers the beauty of nature in the desert (Clementina’s Cactus). And Maggie, who treks through the bayou to track down the “pirate” who stole her cricket (Maggie and the Pirate).
While Ezra created an environment filled with children, he never forgot the importance of the adults in this world. Peter’s mother and father are gentle supporters of Peter’s adventures. Louie’s mother and father believe in him and back him up through his emotional turmoil and growth. Perhaps another reason for the appeal of Keats books is that they propose accessible solutions to real and familiar intergenerational problems.
The children in Ezra’s neighborhood are African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Anglo. The harsh environment of the inner city is recognizable, but it is imbued with the color and warmth found in the wonder of childhood.
Not to be overlooked are the nearly wordless books by Ezra, perfect for the pre- and early reader. These books offer parents the opportunity to make up their own stories based on Ezra’s vivid illustrations. In Clementina’s Cactus, a little girl learns that a desert rain works wonders. Kitten for a Day, Pssst! Doggie- and Skates! recount the adventures of animals in delightful situations. A dog finds himself among kittens, thinks he is a cat and enjoys it! A cat and a dog dance together in costumes! Two dogs put on a prize performance in a skating rink! In fact, in honor of Skates! a rink in Japan was named after Ezra, who attended the opening as the guest of honor.
Ezra’s neighborhood comes to life in the pages he wrote and illustrated, providing parents, educators and caretakers with the kind of literature we all look for for our children. These books not only encourage visual literacy and reading fluency, they also offer age-appropriate models for problem-solving and social development.