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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.