Among the personal effects of author-illustrator Ezra Jack Keats at his death in 1983 was a small tin medal in a tattered box. It was awarded to him in junior high school for excellence in art, when he was 12 years old. Its message sustained and encouraged him to persevere, continue his education and develop his talents despite countless obstacles.
With the goal of providing that same support to young people today, the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and the New York City Department of Education established the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition for public school students. This program, now over 25 years old, spotlights the budding artists and writers in elementary, intermediate and high school, and offers the dedicated teachers who work hard to support and encourage their students the recognition and reward they deserve. Since the program could not have flourished without the cooperation and support of the New York Public Library, it also demonstrates the effectiveness of a true interdisciplinary partnership of schools and libraries.
Each year the prize-winning boys and girls attend the awards ceremony to accept their medals. They range from tiny to tall, from recent immigrant to longtime citizen, and from every ethnic and socioeconomic background. Their parents, bursting with pride, take hundreds of photographs and carry bouquets of flowers for their young winners; the award signals that their children will be able to face life’s challenges successfully.
The competition is divided into three levels: grades 3 through 5, grades 6 through 8, and grades 9 through 12. From all of the books made by classes at each participating school, the principal and arts coordinator select one book as the school-wide winner to submit to the Department of Education. (School-wide winners range in number from 200 to 460.) From these, a jury of librarians, teachers and artists selects the winning books at each level from every borough, and the best book at each level overall. All of the winning students receive medals; borough-wide winners are also awarded $100, and city-wide winners, $500. The teachers or the librarians who advised the borough- and city-wide winners are recognized with medals and certificates of their own.
This project is a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness of an arts-in-education program in enriching a reading program. The books that are produced represent an incredible amount of work by children and educators. Recognizing and rewarding that effort with a medal, a certificate, an announcement, names in a printed program and a check is a well-deserved and inexpensive investment in the future. Participants gain a love and respect for the printed word, and have a greater ability to express themselves verbally and graphically. Children who collaborate on a book learn about the problems and the power of teamwork to achieve a common goal. They have more self-confidence, self-esteem and pride in their work, and perhaps a developing ambition for the future. For parents, it is encouragement and an appreciation for the much-maligned educational system that provides for their child. And for the educator, it is recognition, appreciation for a job well done and encouragement to continue investing that kind of effort. This type of program merits replication. It can be modified easily to fit any school or school system.