Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 08 Jan 2017

Ezra Jack Keats

Although Ezra Jack Keats is now acknowledged as one of the most important. children’s book illustrators of the twentieth century, he didn’t begin his artistic career thinking that this was what he wanted to do.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, USA,  in a working class family, he started drawing at an early age and remained largely self-taught. He relied on experience to give him the sort of material he needed for his work and a period spent in Paris was especially influential. He made a living from magazine work, painting murals and doing some casual teaching when he got a commission to produce a novel jacket for Vita Sackville-West. He also did one for a children’s book and it was this that made publisher Elizabeth Riley sit up and take notice. Keats himself said:

She liked what I did and suggested that I illustrate a children’s book. And so I suddenly found my field – one which fuses my feelings for children, storytelling and painting.

Keats’ reputation is based both on the content of his books and his technique for producing the illustrations. In his Caldecott Medal winning book, A Snowy Day, published in 1962 Keats develops his use of children with clear minority ethnic characteristics which had been a feature of his first book My Dog Is Lost, co-authored with Pat Cherr. Importantly he doesn’t make multi-culturalism an issue – they are just children and they happen to be black or to be Spanish speakers. This is a reflection of his neighbourhood, what he was seeing every day, and he wanted to reflect this – he wasn’t interested in making his books about ‘issues’ but about real life.

In The Snowy Day Keats also found a technique for bringing his children’s drawings to life. Collage was not something he’d used before but a mix of paint, fabric and paper cut-outs proved to be inspired:

My use of college in The Snowy Day occurred so naturally I hardly realised it at the time. I had planned to use just a bit of patterned paper here or there as I worked on the book....When the book was finished I was somewhat startled to discover that my way of working had been transformed.

The storylines that Keats develops are always simple and quite domestic – essentially situations that can be understood by the children who were the target audience. Family life plays a big part in the stories too – although these may not always look like the comfortable middle class nuclear families traditionally found in children’s picture books.

Keats died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 67 and he had been working on stage sets and posters for adaptations that were being made of his books. Keats had established an Ezra Jack Keats Foundation in 1963 and following his death work started in earnest to promote and protect the integrity of the illustrator’s output and to push for more diversity in children’s literature. There is now an Ezra Jack Keats award and a Keats archive that houses the original artwork at the University of Mississippi as part of the deGrummond Children’s Literature Collection.

It would be quite a thrill to be able to pay that a visit – certainly something for the future.


Terry Potter

January 2017