How did he begin? Photographs from Life magazine in the 1940s were the inspiration for the character of Peter in The Snowy Day. Keats had clipped them and kept them pinned around his studio until they finally came to life in his drawings. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation quotes him:
"Then began an experience that turned my life around," he wrote, "working on a book with a black kid as a hero. None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token kids in the background."Although he won the Caldecott Medal in 1963, the book still brought controversy. The exhibit features not only the beautiful original artwork made from painted papers and drawings that were also collaged and stamped from carved erasers, but letters to editors both for and against his depiction. The writers who identified themselves as Black were pleased to see characters doing normal things, living in the world naturally. Others felt that the characters should have been identified as Negro.
His background was difficult, his family, very poor. The exhibit was quite moving. Yet, despite hardships, Ezra Jack Keats devoted himself to his art with love and care. It was wonderful to see how much he influenced people. One section showed his interest in Japan and haiku and letters from Japanese mothers telling him how much their sons enjoyed his books and enjoyed his visit. One little boy was inspired by a little sketch of dogs rollerskating that he begged his mother for some skates. Other children saw the first boy and they also wanted skates. Soon, so many children were skating that mothers were worried about safety and petitioned the mayor for a skating rink. Ezra Jack Keats was invited to the dedication of a skating rink in Japan, and he went. All because of his art.
I came home and took out my copy of Whistle For Willie, a book I know by heart, one I had read hundreds of times to the kids. My favorite page includes a wall with Keats' version of graffiti. Another book, Jennie's Hat was the one that I remember most from my childhood, and I've just got my original copy back. The collages of her decorated hat have always delighted me. Among his books in the museum store, I found a lovely illustrated biography, best suited to upper elementary school students, that contains stories from EJK's childhood, accompanied by artwork from his picture books that corresponds to his life. All of his books have great art, great heart and very gentle plots.
Upon finding the EJK foundation website, I discovered another surprise: every year, in conjunction with the New York public schools, for the last 25 years, they have had a bookmaking contest for children in grades K-12. According to the rules, all books must be original work and all must be handmade. Children may not use binders or commercially made blank books. I scanned the names of the selection committee but found no book artists there. One web page has links to bookmaking projects for kids, including a book made from index cards and a cereal box. You can see some of the selected work in the bookmaking catalogue. EJK won the senior class medal for excellence in art at his high school graduation; in homage to Keats and to foster pride in their work, each child whose book is selected is awarded a medal. EJK's work continues to inspire.
The EJK exhibit is on view until February 24, 2013 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The original art should not be missed!