Today would have been the 100th birthday of author-illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983), whose groundbreaking work incorporating minorities as protagonists in children's books earned him worldwide admiration and acclaim. Keats, a lifelong New Yorker and child of poor Polish-Jewish immigrant parents, saw diversity everywhere--except in children's books, and made it his life's work to bring the vibrant world around him to the printed page.
EJK at work. Reproduced with permission from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.
That moment came in 1962, when Keats wrote and illustrated the Caldecott Medal-winning The Snowy Day, where Peter, an adorable, snowsuit-wearing black boy, enjoys the wintery wonderland before him. Charming and deceptively simple, it was one of the earliest picture books featuring a child of color as the hero. When asked in a 1974 interview with the Milwaukee Journal what prompted him to create Peter, Keats offered an honest assessment of what kids look for in their books, saying, "I think that children look at Peter first of all as a child, who is like themselves in some ways, whether they are a boy or girl, black, brown or white, fat or skinny or what." The Snowy Day broke the color barrier for mainstream children's picture books, and remains a cultural touchstone--look no further than this year's Newbery Medal and Caldecott Honor-winner, Matt de la Peña's Last Stop on Market Street, to see Keats' continued impact on contemporary picture-book illustration.
Covers for The Snowy Day and Last Stop on Market Street. The Snowy Day reproduced with permission from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.
To promote arts and literacy programs for children, the artist founded the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation (EJKF) in 1964, using his book royalties to fund the annual Ezra Jack Keats Book Award and numerous performance scholarships and grants. (This was particularly important to Keats, who had earned three scholarships to attend art school as a teenager, but still couldn't afford to attend.) This year, the foundation is celebrating Keats' centennial with projects and activities coast to coast. There's even a birthday kit lesson plan, complete with games and animated read-alouds, available on the foundation's website.
2015 Bookmaking award winners. Image reproduced with permission from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.
Since 1986, the Keats foundation has organized a bookmaking competition in conjunction with the New York City Department of Education. Students participating in the yearlong project learn research methods and critical analysis skills while creating their book, and the ultimate goal is to ignite a profound, lifelong relationship with books. The program is growing, too: Since 2013, the San Francisco Unified School District and the Contemporary Jewish Museum have partnered with the EJKF to provide a similar program to their students. This year's New York winners will be announced in April during the Children's Book Festival in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and the San Francisco award ceremony takes place this Sunday (see below).
Want to get in on the celebration? Check out some of the events happening in New York and San Francisco over the coming weeks:
Ezra Jack Keats Read-a-Thon at Books of Wonder, NYC, today from 10 a.m to 1p.m. Readers include Pat Cummings, Sean Qualls, Caldecott Honor-winner David Ezra Stein and Coretta-Scott King Award-winner Andrea Pinkney
March 13: "Celebrating Authors Big and Small," Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, 11-3, incorporating Keats birthday festivities and a viewing of books from the EJK Bookmaking Competition. The EJK Bookmaking Awards follow
March 24: Bedtime Stories at the Brooklyn Public Library
April 6-8: Keats Centennial Lecture and EJK Book Awards at the Children's Book Festival, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
A full calendar of events is at the EJKF website: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/h/100-days-of-ezra/.