Ezra’s Life

A Young Artist

Ezra Jack Keats was born on March 11, 1916 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. He was the third child of Benjamin Katz and Augusta “Gussie” Podgainy, Polish Jews who came to this country to escape the aggressive anti-semitism in Europe. Ezra’s mother, as well as his older siblings, William and Mae, were all artistically gifted, but early on it was clear that making art was Ezra’s special gift, as well as joy.

The Katzs
Benjamin and Augusta Katz

His dedication to making art brought Ezra a great deal of important and positive attention, as well as awards. His teachers and school librarians gave him the encouragement he needed to believe in his talent. Upon graduating from Junior High School 149 he was awarded a medal for drawing. It was still among his treasured objects when he died. While at Thomas Jefferson High School, he won a national student contest run by the Scholastic Publishing Company for his painting of a few hobos warming themselves around a fire. That award also gave him the necessary “fuel” to follow his dream to make art his life’s work.

Sister and brother Mae and Willie, with baby Ezra
Sister and brother Mae and Willie, with baby Ezra

Ezra’s family had always been poor but  during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many, including the Katz family, suffered even greater hardships. Although Ezra’s mother was supportive of his talent, his father  worried that  Ezra wouldn’t be able to support himself as an artist. Working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, Benjamin Katz knew how hard it was to earn a living. Despite this concern Benjamin still brought home tubes of paint, pretending that he had traded them with penniless artists for food. 

Tragically, Benjamin died of a heart attack the day before Ezra’s high school graduation, at which he was to be awarded the senior class medal for excellence in art.  Ezra had to identify the body, and in an interview with his friend, the poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, he described the experience: “I found myself staring deep into his [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.”

Out in the World

Unable to attend art school despite having received three scholarships after high school, Ezra worked to help support his family and took art classes whenever he could. Among the jobs he held were with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a mural painter and at Fawcett Publications, illustrating backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip.

Ezra at 16

In 1943, during World War II, Ezra joined the Army and was assigned to design camouflage patterns to help the war effort. Having experienced severe anti-semitism before, during and after the war, he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats in 1947, so he could get work as a fine, as well as commercial artist. His experience of discrimination deepened his sympathy and understanding for those who suffered similar hardships.

Art school

In 1949, with the help of his brother William, Ezra was able to fulfill his dream to study painting in Paris and travel around Europe. Many of the paintings he created in Europe were later exhibited in this country. He continued to paint and exhibit his fine art throughout his life. After returning to New York, he focused on earning a living as a commercial artist. His illustrations appeared in the Reader’s Digest, the New York Times Book Review, Collier’s and Playboy, as well as on the jackets of popular books.

Early book illustrations

It was because Elizabeth Riley, then editorial director at Crowell Publishing, saw a bookcover he created in a Fifth Avenue bookstore window, that Ezra was drawn into the world of children’s literature. Riley invited him to illustrate a few picture books for Crowell, the first of which came out in 1954. It was called Jubilant for Sure, and was written by Elizabeth Hubbard Lansing. In an unpublished autobiography, Ezra marveled: “I didn’t even ask to get into children’s books.” In the years that followed, Keats was hired to illustrate many children’s books written by other authors, among them the Danny Dunn adventure series.

The Books

In the ’50s

Ezra’s first attempt at writing his own children’s book was My Dog is Lost!, co-authored with Pat Cherr and published in 1960. The main character is a boy named Juanito, who, upon arriving in New York City from Puerto Rico, loses his dog. Speaking only Spanish, Juanito searches the city and meets children from Chinatown, Little Italy and Harlem. From the beginning, Ezra cast minority children as his central characters and pioneered bi-lingual children’s books.

Inspiration for Peter
Inspiration for Peter

Not long after this, Ezra was invited by Annis Duff at Viking Press to write and illustrate a book of his own. This invitation sparked the creation of The Snowy Day and the debut of a little boy in a red snowsuit named Peter. “Then began an experience that turned my life around,” he wrote, “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.” Ezra’s inspiration for this endearing character was a group of photographs he had clipped from a 1940 issue of Life magazine depicting a little boy about to get a blood test, “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.”

In the ’60s

Published in 1962, The Snowy Day, was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1963, the highest honor available for children’s picture books at the time. (Ezra’s Caldecott Acceptance Speech). Ezra described what it was like to create The Snowy Day, “I was like a child playing,”  “I was in a world with no rules.” After years of illustrating books written by others, the character of Peter allowed Ezra to develop a voice of his own.

Ezra experimented with techniques completely new to him – combining collage, handmade stamps, and spattering ink – to create the striking illustrations for which The Snowy Day is now famous. Almost twenty books written and illustrated by Ezra followed The Snowy Day, six of which include Peter as he grows from childhood to early adolescence. In subsequent books, like Goggles! and  A Letter to Amy, he blended collage with gouache, an opaque watercolor mixed with a gum that produced an oil-like glaze. Marbled paper, acrylics and watercolor, pen and ink and even photographs were among his tools.

Beyond Peter

Ezra and fans, 1970s

After winning the Caldecott, Ezra found himself suddenly famous. During the 1960s and ’70s, in addition to writing and illustrating his picture books, he taught illustration and traveled extensively. He visited classrooms around the country and corresponded with many children, exhorting them to “Keep on reading!”

The artist, circa 1980

The honors he received over the course of his career ran the gamut from his being the first artist invited to design greeting cards for UNICEF (1970), and the first children’s book author invited to donate his papers to Harvard University, to having a roller rink in Japan named in his honor and appearing on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood four times!

Ezra died in 1983 after suffering a major heart attack. But by that time he had written and illustrated 22 picture book classics, illustrated over 85 books authored by others. and was in the midst of illustrating and writing his own version of The Giant Turnip, a beloved folktale. To this day his books continue to be translated into languages that span the globe and adapted into plays, operas, and major animated movies. The Library of Congress counts The Snowy Day as a book that has shaped America and is the most checked out book in the 125 year history of the New York Public Library. 

It’s true that Ezra never married or had a family of his own. He built a family that included the children of his dear friends and the children who let him know how much they loved his books. It was a very big family.