Becom­ing Ezra Jack Keats

  • Review
By – August 8, 2023

The authors of even the most dis­tin­guished children’s pic­ture books often remain shad­owy fig­ures to read­ers, and some­times con­flat­ed with the char­ac­ters they cre­at­ed. Ezra Jack Keats (1916 – 1983) was born Jacob Ezra Katz to poor Jew­ish immi­grant par­ents in Brook­lyn. Yet as Vir­ginia McGee But­ler points out in her biog­ra­phy of Keats, those unfa­mil­iar with his back­ground some­times assumed he was a Black artist. His inno­v­a­tive The Snowy Day fea­tures Peter, a Black child who is enchant­ed by the beau­ty and free­dom of a win­ter storm. While this cel­e­bra­tion of child­hood joy is uni­ver­sal, it also shows a com­mit­ment to includ­ing char­ac­ters of col­or in books for every­one. But­ler gives insight into the events and peo­ple who con­tributed to Keats’s com­plex artis­tic vision and his ded­i­ca­tion to cre­at­ing books for children.

Like many par­ents of his time and back­ground, Katz’s moth­er and father were ambiva­lent about their son’s choic­es. His father, a labor­er, tried to impress on Jack the need to sup­port him­self finan­cial­ly. At the same time, he made sac­ri­fices to pur­chase art sup­plies for him. Mr. Katz felt trapped by pover­ty, and was frus­trat­ed by Jack’s focus on the work­ing class in his art. Dur­ing a trip to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um, Jack was drawn to Hon­oré Daumier’s haunt­ing images of the poor, while his father was more tak­en with Gilbert Stuart’s famous por­trait of a hero­ic George Wash­ing­ton. But­ler traces Keats’s grow­ing aware­ness that a con­ven­tion­al job would nev­er sat­is­fy him. A series of posi­tions draw­ing back­grounds for com­ic books, and work­ing in com­mer­cial set­tings, final­ly led him to oppor­tu­ni­ties as an author and illus­tra­tor. But­ler describes how even his achieve­ments were tinged with sad­ness and unre­solved psy­cho­log­i­cal conflict.

Keats, who had planned to write an auto­bi­og­ra­phy, left exten­sive tapes, let­ters, and oth­er doc­u­ments in the care of the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Mississippi’s Grum­mond Children’s Lit­er­a­ture Col­lec­tion. These mate­ri­als offer an invalu­able record of Keats’s life and allow But­ler to devel­op an inti­mate tone. At the same time, their use as a source is dis­pro­por­tion­ate for a ful­ly devel­oped biog­ra­phy. Mem­o­ry is not always accu­rate, and even Keats’s most hon­est reflec­tions on his past are nec­es­sar­i­ly incom­plete. As one exam­ple, But­ler uncrit­i­cal­ly repeats Keats’s mem­o­ry of his child­hood seder, at which Ezra asked the four tra­di­tion­al ques­tions … each accom­pa­nied by a glass of wine.” Either the Katz fam­i­ly chose an unusu­al depar­ture from tra­di­tion, or, more like­ly, the artist’s rec­ol­lec­tion was not whol­ly accu­rate. There are also his­tor­i­cal errors, includ­ing the date of Japan’s sur­ren­der in World War II, and a con­fu­sion of the G.I. Bill with the bill of rights.”

Keats used col­lage in The Snowy Day to pro­duce beau­ti­ful­ly tex­tured images. He por­trayed Peter’s moth­er, for instance, as an icon­ic mater­nal fig­ure of both com­fort and author­i­ty. And while respons­es to the book were over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive, one edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sor, Nan­cy Lar­rick, attacked it in an arti­cle in the Sat­ur­day Review, ignit­ing a dis­cus­sion that is still cir­cu­lat­ed today. Lar­rick crit­i­cized Keats’s depic­tion of Peter’s moth­er as over­weight and gaudi­ly dressed, and also took him to task for fail­ing to spec­i­fy in the text that the char­ac­ters are Black. Keats’s elo­quent defense of his work includ­ed a sar­cas­tic sug­ges­tion: Might I sug­gest arm­bands?” But­ler does not draw the con­nec­tion between Keats’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and his choice of words, which clear­ly evokes the recent treat­ment of Europe’s Jews and his own fre­quent encoun­ters with antisemitism.

Keats’s open­ness to artis­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion took root in an ear­ly life marked by adver­si­ty. Becom­ing Ezra Jack Keats reveals how the boy who began by draw­ing on the floor of his ten­e­ment apart­ment became the cre­ator of a thor­ough­ly imag­ined child­hood world that still speaks to read­ers everywhere.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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