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Teaching an Author Study

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Ezra Jack Keats

Ezra Jack Keats

Born to Polish Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1916, Jacob Ezra Katz always knew he wanted to be an artist--but in his family, which was very poor, his father discouraged painting. Benjamin Katz believed painting was a waste of time, because it would never turn into a worthwhile career. It was only when his son began to make money around the community doing odd painting jobs, that Benjamin began to bring home half-empty jars of paint collected at a local Bohemian coffee shop for his son to use--and it was only when Benjamin died that his son ever realized the extent to which his gruff, immigrant father supported his dream of becoming an artist.

In his career, Jacob Ezra Katz changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats, to avoid discrimination, for fear that his name was "too Jewish." It was the same oppressive culture that led Ezra to always have empathy for other minoritized peoples in the United States. As a result, when the author achieved success, it was by portraying Black and Latinx child subjects, joyful and at play; as well as the diversity of urban life and the magic of the urban landscape--most famously in The Snowy Day, but in a number of other works that feature the same boy who went out playing in the snow, and who whacked the snow off a tree with his stick, Peter.

We have all of the books in the Peter cycle in our collection, and one featuring Peter's good friend Archie instead. The boys usually leave home to go out and enjoy an urban playground, which looks quite different from the picket-fenced neighborhoods that were primarily depicted in children's books before Keats came on the scene. City blocks become a magical space, and stray cats and other unusual friends abound. Keats' language has been praised for its jazzy, urban rhythm. Please browse our collection in order to see and hear for yourself!

And thanks to Keats for his groundbreaking work on behalf of diversity and representation--many more voices would come through the door after him!

Picture Books at the ERC

Keats' output was prolific. These are only some of the masterworks we hold!

Further Reading

Keats' First Job in Children's Literature

Keats got into illustrating children's books when he was still working as a sign painter. A publisher who appreciated his work enlisted him to illustrate a book by E. H. Lansing that her company was putting out. To illustrate the book, Jubilant for Sure, Keats would have to draw landscapes of Appalachia. He had never been--so the publisher sent him on a trip to go take a look at rural middle America for himself.

We have this historical artifact in our collection, too! Take a look at the work the author did when he was still down on his luck, and get a better idea about his life.

Jubilant for Sure by E. H. Lansing can be found in our stacks.