100 years ago today, Jacob Ezra Katz was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish immigrant couple from Warsaw, Poland. As his parents worried about his determination to be an artist, he had no formal training, but he learned art at the public library! He won a national Scholastic art contest, and found a job painting murals. His father died on the street suddenly in January 1935, two days before Keats’ high school graduation where he was slated to receive an excellence in art award.
Later, he wrote about identifying his father’s body: “I found myself staring deep into his 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.”*
Drafted into World War II, he created camouflage designs for the US Army Air Force. After the war, he changed his name to EZRA JACK KEATS due to the anti-semitic climate. In 1949, he finally was able to study painting in Paris.
From thence, he did commercial art, eventually stumbling into illustrating books. His first, and my favorite, book which he illustrated AND wrote, hit bookstore shelves in 1962 — The Snowy Day. It won the Caldecott Award! I surmise if I pictured him in my mind, I saw an African-American. His lead characters were African-American children. Though he wrote and/or illustrated about one hundred books, before his death in 1983, The Snowy Day remains the all-time favorite and stands among the most important picture books ever written. The simple text has a similar aura to Goodnight Moon in that it has a magical life of its own.
Lift a glass to Ezra Jack Keats and Peter! If you do not know The Snowy Day, go to Amazon and purchase the Kindle edition for only $6.99. Your kids or grandkids will love looking at it on your phone!