"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Friday, February 27, 2009

Do You Remember...The Snowy Day?

I have been cleaning and reorganizing my house, trying to shed some of my clutter, and the process has been long and daunting. I will open a box and find memories to wade through, and then spend hours--literally--turning back time and remembering certain periods of my life with fondness, humor, joy, or sadness.

Tonight I was sorting through many of my childhood belongings, including toys without any batteries, flashing lights or other distractions... it seemed I was in a Fisher-Price museum. And then, I came upon a box of my books, wonderful children's books that I loved, that still stand the test of time; many titles that I still give to new parents for their children.

And while all the books in the box were special to me, the one that stood out the most was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. The cover of that book took me back in time quickly and further than any of the others. I felt a genuine calm come over me as I looked through the pages, remembering how reading this book as a child, or having it read to me gave such a vivid impression of the quiet of walking outside in the early morning just after a snowfall.

In searching the web tonight, I found that there is an Ezra Jack Keats Foundation that celebrates his work, and his many, many other books written for children. I was a little shocked to find that The Snowy Day, published in 1962, was the first book to feature an African American child as the main character. It's just hard to imagine that until that point in history (which really is not that long ago), that had not happened. The Snowy Day also won the prestigious Caldecott Medal that year.

My love for this book is enduring, but as I learned more about the author, I understand how this story came to be. This beautiful story came from a man with the courage and heart to see beyond race and give children an ageless and enduring story that will no doubt be enjoyed for generations to come.

Below is a biography of Ezra Jack Keats, from the foundation's website. There are so many touching parts to this biography, be sure to read it, and also visit the website.

Long before multicultural characters and themes were fashionable, Ezra Jack Keats crossed social boundaries by being the first American picture-book maker to give the black child a central place in children’s literature.
Ezra Jack Keats was born on March 11, 1916, to impoverished Polish immigrants of Jewish descent in East New York, which was then the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, New York. He was the third child of Benjamin Katz and Augusta Podgainy, and was then known as Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz. It was evident early on that Jack was an artistically gifted child.
At the age of eight, Ezra won the approval of his father when he was paid twenty-five cents for painting a sign for a local store, providing Benjamin with the hope that his son might be able to earn a living as a sign painter; nevertheless, Ezra was in love with the fine arts.
He excelled in art in elementary school, and, on graduating from Junior High School 149; he was awarded a medal for drawing. This medal, though quite skimpy in design and construction, meant a good deal to him; he kept it all his life, together with all his subsequent prestigious awards.
Ezra was a good student in high school, and was recognized as an outstanding young artist. During his years at Thomas Jefferson High School, one of his oil paintings depicting unemployed men warming themselves around a fire won a national contest run by the Scholastic Publishing Company. This award provided Ezra with an important amount of much needed encouragement.
It was the time of the great depression of the 1930s, and Ezra’s family suffered extreme hardship, as did practically all families in the neighborhood. Although Ezra’s mother was supportive and encouraging of Ezra, his father wanted him to turn his head to more practical skills. Working as a waiter at Pete’s Coffee Shop in Greenwich Village, Benjamin Katz knew how hard earning a living could be. He felt that his son could never support himself as an artist.
Despite his desire to discourage Ezra, Benjamin brought home tubes of paint for his son under the pretense of having traded bowls of soup to starving artists. “If you don’t think artists starve, well, let me tell you. One man came in the other day and swapped me a tube of paint for a bowl of soup.”
Upon graduation from high school, Ezra was awarded the senior class’s medal for excellence in art. Sadly, Benjamin Katz died in the street of a heart attack in January 1935, on the day before Ezra was to receive this award. Ezra was called upon to identify the body, and it was then that he discovered in his father’s wallet the carefully preserved newspaper clippings that reported on the notable artistic achievements of his son.

In an interview with his friend, the poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, Keats described this 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."
Although Ezra was awarded three scholarships to art school, he was unable to attend. He had to work to help support his family by day, and he took art classes at night when he could. In 1937, he secured a job with the
Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a mural painter. After three years, Ezra moved on to work as a comic book illustrator. In 1942, he began work on the staff of Fawcett Publications, illustrating backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip.
Keats entered the service of the United States Army on April 13, 1943. Taking advantage of his skill as an artist, the army trained him to design camouflage patterns. After World War II, he returned to New York. Eager to expand his experience at easel painting, Ezra was determined to study in Europe and he spent one very productive year in Paris. Many of his French paintings were later exhibited in this country.
After returning to the states Ezra painted covers for The Reader’s Digest, illustrations for The New York Times Book Review, Colliers and Playboy, among others, and was exhibited at the Associated American Artists Gallery in New York City in 1950 and 1954. His easel paintings were sold through displays in Fifth Avenue shop windows, and provided him with a very welcome income. Two years after the war, Jack, in reaction to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the time, legally changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. It was Ezra’s memory of being a target of discrimination that provided the basis for his sympathy and understanding for those who suffered similar hardships.
In 1954, Jubilant for Sure by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing was published. The book, set in the mountains of Kentucky, was the first book Keats illustrated for children. Keats, in an unpublished autobiography, stated: “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 being the Danny Dunn adventure series.
My Dog is Lost was Keats’ first attempt at writing his own children’s book. He co-authored the book with Pat Cherr and it was published in 1960. The main character is a boy, newly arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico, named Juanito. Juanito does not speak any English, only Spanish, and he has lost his dog. In searching the city Juanito meets children from different sections of New York, such as Chinatown and Little Italy. Even in this very early book Keats was innovative in his use of minority children as central characters.
In the two years that followed, Keats worked on a book featuring a little boy named Peter. An article Keats had clipped from Life magazine in 1940 inspired Peter. “Then began an experience that turned my life around—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. 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.”
The book featuring Peter,
The Snowy Day, received the prestigious Caldecott Award for the most distinguished picture book for children in 1963. Peter appears in six more books growing from a small boy in The Snowy Day to adolescence in Pet Show.
In the books that Keats wrote and illustrated, he used his special artistic techniques to portray his subjects in a unique manner. One of these was his blending of gouache with collage. Gouache is an opaque watercolor mixed with a gum that produces an oil-like glaze.
The characters in Keats’ books come from the community around him. Many of his stories illustrate family life, the simple pleasures and more complex problems, that a child often encounters in his daily routine. To create his books, Keats drew upon his own childhood experiences, from having to flee from bullies to taking a ribbing from his pals for liking girls. But these are also the experiences of almost all children growing up in neighborhoods and communities in many parts of the world. This commonality explains the continuing popularity of Keats’ books and characters.

By the time of Keats’ death following a heart attack in 1983, Keats had illustrated over eighty-five books for children, and written and illustrated twenty-four children’s classics. Keats had just designed the sets for a musical version of The Trip, [now entitled CAPTAIN LOUIE] the show is still presented around the country and licensed for production by Musical Theatre International designed a poster for The New Theatre of Brooklyn, and written and illustrated The Giant Turnip, a beloved folktale. Although Keats never married or had a family of his own, he loved children, and was loved by them in return.


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