Homage to a Picture-Book Rebel
In 1962 Ezra Jack Keats started a quiet revolution that in its own way had as much influence as some of the decade’s louder protests. An author and illustrator, Keats published “The Snowy Day,” about a small boy’s delight in his first snowstorm. Nothing radical there. But the story differed profoundly from virtually all the mainstream American picture books preceding it: Peter, the little boy, was black.
Keats was not, which still surprises some who hear that the Jewish Museum in New York has mounted a retrospective of his work. Celebrating the book’s 50th anniversary and traveling to three other museums, the show, “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” tells the story of how a white Jew — Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz — created a black character who helped change the face of children’s books.
“He tried to get kids to pay attention to things they wouldn’t have paid attention to,” Claudia J. Nahson, the exhibition’s curator, said in an interview. “He doesn’t sugarcoat urban life. His characters live in gritty urban landscapes, but because of the vibrant color and the hope in the story, they pull through.”
So did Keats. A child of Eastern European immigrants, Keats (1916-83) grew up in extreme poverty in East New York, Brooklyn. Small and artistic, he attracted little notice, except the negative kind from bullies. His later books reflect those experiences, and thus Ms. Nahson didn’t organize the exhibition chronologically. It starts with Keats’s childhood as depicted in his more mature work, as well as in a few oils and pastels from his adolescence, featuring Brooklyn rooftops and tenements.
“It’s to set out who he was,” she said. “Once you understand where he came from, you can understand a character like Peter.”
Peter stars in six more of Keats’s picture books, growing older and acquiring friends, a dog (his dachshund, Willie) and a baby sister (Susie). Illustrations from these works as well as from books like “Apt. 3” (1971), in which boys in a dingy tenement trace haunting music to a blind musician’s home; “Dreams” (1974), in which drab windows burst into color as a building’s occupants dream; and “Louie” (1975), whose shy, isolated title character is Keats’s stand-in, reveal a recurring theme: how ingenuity, or sometimes art, helps the otherwise defenseless triumph.
The show, which also comprises notebooks, sketches, correspondence, photographs and some of Keats’s research, includes a 1940 clipping from Life magazine showing a boy of about 3 or 4 being tested for malaria in Georgia. He became the model for Peter. “The child was black, but as far as Ezra was concerned, he was Ezra,” said Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.
Although Keats had illustrated other authors’ books and had collaborated with Pat Cherr in writing “My Dog Is Lost!” (1960), about a Puerto Rican boy, Juanito — the book featured Spanish words long before “Sesame Street” was broadcasting them — “The Snowy Day” was the first work he created entirely alone. Keats had experienced prejudice (some have said that anti-Semitism probably led him to change his name), but Ms. Nahson said he did not approach “The Snowy Day” as a political manifesto but as an exploration of a universal childhood joy by a character who was anything but universal himself.
“My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along,” Keats said of Peter.
Released by Viking Press, “The Snowy Day” won the Caldecott Medal for the year’s most distinguished American picture book. The original illustrations show the flowering of Keats’s collage technique: Peter’s mother’s dress is checked oilcloth; the colorful buildings are cutouts. But the book stands out most in how its straightforward, upbeat portrayal contrasted from its predecessors. A display traces how black characters evolved in works for children, from the condescending “Little Black Sambo” (1899), by Helen Bannerman, to Julius Lester’s “Sam and the Tigers” (1996), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, which reclaims and revises the Sambo tale.
Despite glowing reviews and an admiring letter from Langston Hughes, “The Snowy Day” also drew sharp criticism. In “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” a 1965 essay in Saturday Review, Nancy Larrick described Peter’s mother as a stereotypical mammy (“She looked exactly like Ezra’s mother,” Dr. Pope observed wryly) and said that Keats should have referred directly to Peter’s race. Keats’s subsequent letter to the editor, on display, has an uncharacteristically biting response: “Might I suggest armbands?”
In a telephone interview Mr. Pinkney said he first encountered Keats’s work as a black parent “looking for books for our children that portrayed their beauty.” He finds “The Snowy Day” groundbreaking.
“I’m not sure whether someone African-American could have done this at the time,” he said.” “I don’t think the field was ready actually to publish African-American artists or writers that way.” As an illustrator, he added, “nothing came my way that captured contemporary African-American life.”
At the same time the simplicity of the story made Keats popular worldwide — “The Snowy Day,” translated into at least 10 languages, has sold millions of copies since publication (3.8 million since 2000 alone) — and the book and its successors went on to influence a younger generation.
“Suddenly children of many different ethnic and racial and social backgrounds thought, ‘Oh my goodness, there I am,’ ” Dr. Pope said. They included the American Indian author Sherman Alexie, who thanked Keats when he accepted a National Book Award in 2007, and the black artist Bryan Collier, “who said that he felt that he was Peter,” Dr. Pope added.
While the exhibition wasn’t designed specifically for children, they can meet Peter, Roberto, Louie, Jennie (Keats’s first female protagonist) and other Keats characters on the page in a reading area, designed by Kris Stone to resemble Peter’s stoop. Filled with Keats’s books, it includes an edition of “The Snowy Day” that concludes with Keats’s observations on how art brightened his life. (He never married or had children.)
“Sometimes, I would feel that life was one vast desert,” Keats wrote, “and I could pick up a stone and water would spurt out.” He added, “I wonder what ripples of laughter and joy and love are buried — to surface one day just as the meaning of Peter’s pictures had finally emerged for me.”
“The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” runs through Jan. 29 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street; (212) 423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org. It travels to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass.; the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco; and the Akron Art Museum in Ohio.