December 19, 2018

Ezra Jack Keats’ tales of squalor and hope

In 1962, the children’s book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983) published “The Snowy Day,” the tale of a boy named Peter who, wearing a fanciful red parka, ventures out into his gritty neighborhood to enjoy the delight of freshly fallen snow.  

With illustrations rendered in brightly colored collage, the story follows Peter as he roms blissfully through the snow, builds a snowman and an angel, and puts a snowball in his pocket as a keepsake, only to be devastated when it melts — although, we are told, he will awaken to the joy of another snowy day.

It’s a universal tale of childhood wonder, though the character of Peter was groundbreaking in 1962 as the first African-American protagonist to grace a modern, full-color picture book. Even more startling, to some, was the author: a Jewish white man.

Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz to Polish immigrant parents in the impoverished Brooklyn slum of East New York, explained his inspiration for Peter while accepting the prestigious Caldecott Medal for children’s literature, which the book was awarded in 1963: “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.”

More than five decades after Keats published his unprecedented book, the Skirball Cultural Center is hosting a major retrospective of his work, “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats.” The exhibition, which will be on display through Sept. 7, originated at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2011-2012 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Peter’s debut.  

On display are paintings and illustrations from Keats’ seven “Peter” books, some of which feature a Puerto Rican character named Roberto, as well as snippets of Keats’ unpublished memoir, his paint box, diaries, photographs and sketches. There is art, too, from other Keats picture books such as “Apt. 3” (1971), the tale of two brothers who are lured from their dingy flat by haunting music; and “Dreams” (1974), in which incandescent color bursts from the windows of a tenement as its residents begin to dream.

The exuberant artwork exudes a vibrant combination of graffiti, thick dollops of acrylic paint, gouache, watercolor and pencil that somehow renders Keats’ dilapidated urban landscapes beautiful.  

“You really get a sense of trash cans overflowing, garbage, graffitied walls, crumbling buildings, even people sleeping in the streets,” said Claudia Nahson, the exhibition’s originating curator at the Jewish Museum. “But the way that Keats did it — his bright colors, the optimism of his stories — offsets that squalor in a certain way. Keats makes you pay attention to these people and places that are usually relegated to the background.”

The Native American author Sherman Alexie once remarked upon Peter’s “gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation,” and it was Keats’ own sense of being what he referred to as “invisible” and “not there,” as well as his fraught slum roots, that led him to write about black and Latino characters who battle and triumph over life in the inner city. 

The youngest child of a loveless marriage, Keats had a father, Benjamin, who was ambivalent about his artistic endeavors, while his mother, Augusta (“Gussie”), though sometimes supportive, was often emotionally distant. A small, socially awkward boy who was bullied by his peers, Keats wrote of “walking around like a shadow,” that “life was measured by anguish,” that “the only time people knew that I was around was when I drew pictures,” and that his only escape was when he “holed up and drew” or “took walks as far away from home as possible.”

The characters in his picture books, in turn, walk their gritty streets in search of affection or inspiration: In “The Trip” (1978), a lonely boy named Louie — Keats’ alter-ego — imagines that he wanders his old neighborhood in search of friends. In “Louie’s Search” (1980), the same boy sets off in search of a father figure, which he ultimately finds in the unlikely character of the formidable Barney, a junk dealer inspired by a pious Jew who had impressed Keats as a child. 

The author-illustrator “grew up steeped in Jewish culture,” Nahson said. Yiddish music played on the family’s phonograph; Keats was lulled to sleep by his father reading The Forward’s advice column, “A Bintel Brief,” aloud every night; and his mother covered his childhood doodlings on the kitchen tabletop with her Sabbath tablecloth, which she would proudly lift to show visitors Jacob’s artwork.

All the while, Keats was no stranger to anti-Semitism: The exhibition describes slurs he experienced at the hands of a grade-school teacher and a would-be girlfriend in Paris, as well as the suggestion, from an editor of Reader’s Digest, that Katz should change his Jewish surname because it “would look better in the credits.”

Keats did, in fact, change his name while attempting to solicit magazine illustration jobs in the 1940s; he went on to a career in which he illustrated more than 85 books, and wrote and illustrated 22 children’s works.

His inspiration for Peter was a series of expressive photographs of an imperiled black toddler who was being vaccinated for malaria in Georgia, published in Life magazine in 1940, which Keats often kept pinned to his drawing board over the years. “I just loved looking at him,” the artist wrote. “This was the child who would be the hero of my book.” 

The impetus for Peter’s snowy romp was Keats’ own memories of his childhood neighborhood in the snow, when the slum landscape turned “very quiet, very poetic and so different that I felt it in my bones,” he wrote. 

“The Snowy Day” went on to sell millions of copies and was translated into at least 10 languages: “Keats said it brought him a lot of joy, but also a lot of woe,” Nahson said.

Even though “The Snowy Day” was widely applauded in the 1960s, some critics denounced it for depicting Peter’s mother in a manner they perceived as stereotypical and for creating Peter as a character who was only coincidentally African-American, without delving into issues of race. Keats’ sarcastic response to one such critic, in a letter to the editor published in the Saturday Review, was, “Might I suggest armbands?”

Final illustration for “The Snowy Day” (1962). Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

If Keats focused on African-American, Latino and also Asian characters, creating not a single Jewish protagonist, the preference was not because he felt ambivalent about his Judaism, Nahson said. Rather, he aspired to explore the universal experience of disenfranchised children.  

“It was only later in life that he began to create works that more specifically drew on his roots, because his childhood was definitely painful for him,” Nahson said. “At a certain point, he felt more comfortable returning to those years, especially once he had an established career.”

The boy at the center of “Louie” is captivated by a puppet called Gussie, named for Keats’ aloof mother. And the father-figure character of Barney in “Louie’s Search” is based on Keats’ memories of a fiery-haired Orthodox Jew in his Brooklyn neighborhood whom everyone referred to as Tzadik (“righteous one” in Hebrew). The author wrote of how Tzadik once “swooped down, grabbed me, lifted me high in the air … [and said] ‘Look up — look up — see? God is there.’ ”  

The exhibition also features letters between Keats and the esteemed Yiddish-language author Isaac Bashevis Singer about Keats’ most autobiographical work, “Apt. 3.” The story spotlights two brothers who live in a claustrophobic, dilapidated building, its corridors illuminated only by naked light bulbs — a setting so bleak that the boys thrill to the sight of a discarded flowery mattress in the street.

On display, as well, are artifacts and artwork that express Keats’ burgeoning spirituality toward the end of his life, including his interest in Japanese art and haiku and the diary he kept during his 1982 trip to Israel, in which he recounts how he felt the presence of “eternity” at the Western Wall.  

The abstract paintings in his adult book, “God Is in the Mountain,” accompany quotes from sources ranging from the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita to Rabbi Hillel; there are also illustrations from another work, “Where Is God?” in which two children look everywhere for the Creator, which was unfinished at the time of Keats’ death, following a heart attack, in 1983, at the age of 67.

Even when he became an established children’s author, Keats could not quite comprehend his success, Nahson said.  

“He once spoke of going to the public library in Brooklyn that he had frequented as a child, and not quite believing that his own books were there,” she said. “He had been so scarred by his childhood experiences that he … never married or had children. But he had a tremendous love for children, and that is something that sustained him.”

For more information about the exhibition “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” at the Skirball Cultural Center, visit this article at