Tuesday, October 16, 2012
October 16, 2012: Ezra Jack Keats
[This week, I have the wonderful opportunity to be a Celebrity Reader—emphasis on the celebrity, right? Right?!—for both of my sons’ elementary school classes. So in honor of that occasion, I’ll feature blog posts on children’s books and authors and American Studies. Please share your own favorite books and authors (or problematic ones—I’m looking at you, Curious George), and any other thoughts on children’s lit, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
Given how significant a percentage of my daily life—and an even higher percentage of my reading time, over the last six plus years at least—is dedicated to children’s books, it feels overdue for me to dedicate a week of posts here to them as well. My Mom Ilene Railton did so in my first Guest Post, on Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon (1947); I also spent a paragraph analyzing the family dynamics of The Cat in the Hat here, and discussed one of my all-time favorite chapter books, David and the Phoenix, as part of the Valentine’s post here. Each of those books and their authors would certainly qualify for a tribute post; my Mom’s post in fact focused on Brown’s hugely innovative theories and styles, and the same could of course be said of Dr. Seuss’s literary creations, as well as those of numerous other children’s authors (my short list would include Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, and Marjorie Weinmann Sharmat’s Nate the Great series). But I’m not sure any American children’s author is more tribute-worthy than Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983).
Keats’ early life and career read like a newsreel of American culture and identity in the early 20th century: born in Brooklyn to Polish American immigrants, he won a nationwide artistic contest in high school with a Depression-era painting of the unemployed; after graduation he went to work for Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a mural painter, then turned to providing illustrations for the exploding new comic books industry; he served in the army during World War II, designing camouflage; spent a year in Paris, where he produced many paintings that were later exhibited there and in the States; and then returned to America to illustrate many of the era’s most prominent magazines, including Reader’s Digest and Playboy. His first jobs as a children’s book illustrator were just another facet of this expanding career—in fact he was offered the first such job after a publisher saw another illustration of his—and as of the end of the 1950s, despite the clear facts of his artistic talent and resume, there was no apparent evidence that Keats had anything especially unique to offer the world of American children’s literature.
Keats’ first authored as well as illustrated children’s book, My Dog is Lost (1960), instantly proved that perception false. The book featured as its protagonist a young Puerto Rican boy, a recent immigrant who speaks only Spanish, as he travels New York City in search of his lost dog; during his journey he meets numerous other city dwellers and communities. My Dog’s introduction of a multicultural and multiethnic urban world, without sacrificing a bit of story or beauty or audience appeal, set the stage for a long career in which Keats continued to strike that balance, most especially in the many books featuring the African American protagonist Peter; introduced in 1963’s Caldecott Winning The Snowy Day, Peter would reappear in many more books and grow from a young boy to a teenager on New York’s streets. His world and experiences and stories were recognizably specific to his race and urban setting and time period, but were also always universal and human and full of the wonder and mystery and humor that defines the best children’s books. More than, I believe, any other single American author (in any genre), Keats helped bring the nation’s burgeoning post-1960 multicultural identity into the mainstream, not with polemics or arguments, but with beautiful illustrations and engaging stories of city life and childhood.
My boys don’t like The Snowy Day any more than they like many other favorites, but that’s precisely my point—it’s one great children’s book among many, yet one that stands out (in its own era and to an extent even in ours) for the community and world it creates. Well worth a tribute, I’d say. Next children’s author tomorrow,
PS. Responses, nominations, perspectives for the weekend’s post? Share ‘em please!10/16 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two pioneering authors who helped change America’s languages, literatures, and culture in multiple and enduring ways, Noah Webster and Eugene O’Neill.