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 Picture Books Author of the Month
Ezra Jack Keats
Ezra Jack Keats
11 March 1916 -- 6 May 1983

Jacob Ezra Katz was born on March 11, 1916 in Brooklyn, New York to Benjamin and Augusta "Gussie"(Podgainy) Katz, two Polish immigrants who had been born in Warsaw. Keats' parents did not meet until they both emigrated to the United States. Continuing the Polish custom, their wedding was arranged by a matchmaker. After the marriage, they settled in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn. It was not until later that Jacob became known to the world as Ezra Jack Keats. He was the third child born to his parents. He had an older brother named Willie and an older sister named Mae.

His father Benjamin was a waiter in a coffee shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He worked long hours and earned very little money.

Keats expressed an interest in the arts at an early age. "I think I started painting when I was about four years old. I really dedicated myself to what I did, avidly and lovingly. I drew on and colored everything that came across my path, with the indulgent approval of my mother." [1]

His favorite place to draw was at the kitchen table. In fact, he drew directly onto the kitchen table top. His mother would come into the kitchen. When she saw the drawings on the tabletop, she did not yell at Keats to wash it off like many mothers would. Instead, she would say how beautiful the drawings were. She took a tablecloth and covered Keats' murals and would show the drawings off to visitors at every opportunity.

Keats' father was a little more concerned about his interest in drawing. While he was proud of his son, he was greatly concerned about how difficult it was for people to make a living as an artist. Keats' father did not let his concerns prevent him from supporting his son. He would often come home from work with a package of brushes or some paints for Keats to use.

Benjamin Keats also supported his son by taking him to museums to see famous paintings. Keats always remembered a trip he and his father made to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to see the famous portrait Gilbert Stuart had made of George Washington and a painting of Andrew Jackson. Keats' father believed that to make a good living as an artist, one had to become a portraitist for famous people. Young Keats had a different idea about what made artists great. He found the portraits to be almost boring. That same trip did provide him with some excitement when he saw the painting Third Class Carriage by Honore Daumier. This painting swept the young boy away.

When Keats was eight years old, he realized that the children who lived near by could respect him for his artwork. He grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. One day he was walking own the street with one of his paintings in his hands. A group of neighborhood boys grabbed the painting out of his hands. It was a situation that filled Keats with fear. A most interesting thing happened. Instead of making fun of him or damaging the painting, the boys started to treat him with respect when they realized that he had made the painting.

Keats was nine when he first started telling stories. He still loved to paint, but he would often fill some of his free time by sitting with some of the younger kids in the neighborhood and make up stories for them. The kids loved the stories so much that they would beg him to tell them more and more.

Keats attended public schools in New York City, but he never received any formal training in art. Looking back on how he learned to paint, Keats once said, " I taught myself to paint, using any kind of material I could find. Once I got some paint -- just a few colors, two which were blue and white -- and I covered a board with my blue paint. I dipped my brush into the white and dabbed it onto the board, shook the brush a little and let it trail off. I stepped back and got the greatest thrill I can remember. I saw a little cloud floating across a blue sky. It was very real to me, and I'll always remember it. What a tremendous feel of gratification, to have created something like this!" [1]

As a high school student at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Keats won a prize for one of his paintings in the National Scholastic contest and was offered a scholarship to the Art Students' League as a result. Keats was unable to pursue his education largely due to the Great Depression. Instead, he opted to work to support his family by day and took art classes at night when he could. His father had died the day before he graduated from high school.

In 1937 he secured a job as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1940, he found another position as a comic book illustrator for Five-Star Comics. In 1942 he began working on the staff of Fawcett Publications illustrating background for "Captain Marvel Adventures," a comic book.

On April 13, 1943, Keats joined the United States Air Corps. Taking advantage of his skill as an artist, the Army trained him to design camouflage patterns. Keats was given an honorary discharge in 1945, when he returned to New York.

It was on February 8, 1948 that Keats had his name legally changed from Jacob Ezra Katz to Ezra Jack Keats. This was most certainly a reaction to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the time.

Following the war, Keats found work as a magazine, advertising, and book jacket illustrator. He also was an instructor at the School for Visual Arts in New York City from 1947 to 1948. He was also an instructor at the Workshop School in New York City from 1955 though 1957.

Keats had always dreamed of seeing Paris ever since his first visit to the Metropolitan Museum when he had seen the painting by Daumier. It was in 1949 that that dream came true. He found a room in a small boarding house in Montmartre, the artists' quarter in Paris. The room only cost 5 francs a night, which included breakfast. At that rate, he could afford to stay in Paris for at least three months. That also allowed him to budget for evening meals, paint, and canvas.

Keats spent hours just walking up and down the winding streets of Paris, stopping to draw or sketch scenes that captured his eye. He took the sketches home and used them to create paintings. His paintings became quite popular with the local populace. He sold a number of paintings in his first months in Paris, which allowed him to extend his stay in the city up to a year.

Keats started his career as an illustrator of children's books in 1954 with the publication of Jubilant for Sure by Elizabeth Hubbard Lansing. He illustrated books for other people until about 1960. That was the year he collaborated with Pat Cherr in the writing of My Dog Is Lost, or, Mi Perro Se Ha Perdido. Its success led him to write his own books.

Keats was also driven to write his own books because he never got a chance to work on books with African Americans. "I decided that if I ever did a book of my own it would be more of a happening -- certainly not a structured thing, but an experience. My hero would be a Black child. I made many sketches and studies of Black children, so that Peter would not be a white kid colored brown. I wanted him to be in the book on his own, not through the benevolence of white children or anyone else." [1]

My Dog is Lost was Keats' first attempt at authoring a children's book. It was published in 1960. The main character was a Puerto Rican boy named Juanito who had lost his dog in New York. In his search for the dog, Juanito meets children from the different sections of the city, such as Chinatown and Little Italy.

The first book that Keats both wrote and illustrated was entitled The Snowy Day, which was published in 1962 by Viking Press. The book, which won the Caldecott Award in 1963, was noted for Keats' unique style of blending paint and collage in with vivid colors and also for its treatment of the main character, an African American boy named Peter. Peter appeared in six more books by Keats. He grew from a small boy in The Snowy Day to being a teenager in Pet Show. Peter was inspired by the picture of a little boy that had appeared in the May 13th, 1940 issue of Life Magazine.

In 1967, the Weston Woods Studio created an animated version of The Snowy Day, which won the prize for the best children's film at the Venice Film Festival.

Keats also became well known for work he did for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which is an international organization dedicated to the welfare of children. UNICEF asked him to design a series of greeting cards with the proceeds being given to the organization to use in its many projects. These cards raised almost a half million dollars for children in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Keats illustrated thirty-three books, twenty-two of which he also wrote himself. His books have been translated into sixteen languages including Arabic, Danish, French, German, Japanese, and Norwegian.

In April of 1983, Keats was hospitalized with severe chest pains. Ezra Jack Keats died in a New York hospital of a heart attack on May 6, 1983. While Keats had never married or had any children of his own , he always considered the characters in his books to be his children.

Information for this biography was taken from:
    1)Anne Commire (ed.). Contemporary Authors, #14; Gale Research Company: Detroit, Mich., 1978.
    2) Anne Commire (ed.). Contemporary Authors, #34; Gale Research Company: Detroit, Mich., 1984.
    3) Dean Engel and Florence b. Freedman. Ezra Jack Keats: A Biography With Illustrations; Silver Moon Press: New York, 1995.

    4) Ezara Jack Keats Biography (http://www.lib.usm.edu/~degrum/keats/biography.html)
    5) Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast (ed.). St. James Guide to Children's Writers; St. James Press: Detroit, 1999. 

E-KEA Clementina's Cactus (1982) -- Clementina discovers a delightful surprise in the prickly skin of the cactus.

E-KEA Goggles (1969) -- Two boys must outsmart the neighborhood bullies before they can enjoy their new treasure, a pair of motorcycle goggles missing their lenses.

E-KEA Hi, Cat! (1970) -- Archie's day would have been great if he hadn't started it by greeting the new cat on the block.

E-KEA Jennie's Hat (1966) -- Jennie's new spring hat is drab and uninspiring until her friends, the birds, decorate it with flowers, leaves, and even a nest.

E-KEA A Letter to Amy (1968) -- Peter, who is having a very special birthday, writes a letter to Amy to invite her to his party

E-Keats The Little Drummer Boy (1987) -- An illustrated version of the Christmas carol about the procession to Bethlehem and the offer of a poor boy to play his drum for the Christ Child.

E-Keats Pet Show! (1972) -- When he can't find his cat to enter in the neighborhood pet show, Archie must do some fast thinking to win a prize.

E-Keats Peter's Chair (1967) -- When Peter discovers his blue furniture is being painted pink for a new baby sister, he rescues the last unpainted item, a chair, and runs away.

E-Keats Regards to the Man in the Moon (1981) -- With the help of his imagination, his parents, and a few scraps of junk, Louie and his friends travel through space.

E-KEA Skates! (1973) -- Two dogs almost give up their efforts to learn to roller skate until they have an opportunity to help a stranded kitten.

E-KEA The Snowy Day (1962) -- The adventures of a little boy named Peter in the city on a very snowy day.

E-KEA The Trip (1978) -- Lonely in a new neighborhood, Louie creates a magic box from a shoebox and sees his old friends trick-or-treating.

E-KEA Whistle for Willie (1964) -- Peter wants so much to be able to whistle for his dog. He walks around the city practicing.

Titles Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
E-J-970.6-PIN The Indians Knew (1957) by Tillie S. Pine -- Learn all of the things that Native Americans knew how to do, like preserving food, starting fires without matches, making paints, and using the moon as a calendar.

Ezra Jack Keats Biography (http://www.lib.usm.edu/~degrum/keats/biography.html) -- This site provides a brief biography of Keats. 

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