Ezra Jack Keats And His Footsteps in the Snow

There is snow on the ground, it covers everything. And through the snow, crunch crunch crunch, goes a little boy in a bright red snow suit.

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Sometimes he walks with his toes pointing out, sometimes he walks with his toes pointing in, making little footprints on the white, untouched snow. The little boy is Peter and he walks a lot on this Snowy Day— all the way from the book to your home and the homes of several thousand children in America and the rest of the world.

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Peter’s adventures with his dog Willie, his little sister Suzie, his neighborhood friends are all told in vivid dream-like colors and words by Peter’s creator: Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983).

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Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz in a very poor working class Jewish family in the Brooklyn area of New York City. His parents were Benjamin Katz and Augusta “Gussie” Podgainy. They were Jewish immigrants who came to New York from Poland. His father waited tables at a coffee house.

Keats

The young Jacob could paint and draw wonderful pictures even before he entered school but his father didn’t really want his son to be an artist. This is because he had seen many artists struggle to make a living and he didn’t want his son to live in poverty like he himself was forced to.

But despite all his warning to Jacob about starving artists, Benjamin Katz would sometime bring home for his son tubes of paint and inexpensive paintbrushes. Many years later, as a grownup himself, Ezra Keats realized how difficult it must have been for his father to save pennies and buy these art supplies for him.

Throughout his childhood the young Keats struggled to be an artist. His family never had enough money for him to go to art school so he had to take different jobs to support himself and his family. These were the years of what is called the Great Depression in America, when a small handful of people made a lot of money but the vast majority of people struggled to pay bills and make ends meet.

One of Keats’ childhood friends, Martin Pope, wrote this about their shared childhood:

[During the Great Depression] …our families were poor. Securing food and shelter was the major focus of our lives. There was little or no money for anything else.

Our mothers had incredible skill in making something out of nothing: soup from bones, and clothing from fragments of cloth. Potato soup was delicious and went a long way; bread was home-baked and cheaper than at the store. Borrowing and lending of small kitchen necessities among neighbors was a way of life…

We never learned how to roller-skate, and it was well into later years that we learned how to ride a bike. Both of us, and most of the boys on the block, peddled candies, pretzels and ice cream, to supplement family income and to earn the five cents to pay for an occasional movie.

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As a young man, Keats continued to draw even though he never really got paid as an artist. He would draw the streets of New York City sometimes from his tenement rooftop. He painted the flight of pigeons, the clamor of voices (can you paint speech? Ezra tried to!), and the busy, jostling, colors of the city against a vast sky.

He got minor jobs painting comic books, and working as an artist for the Federal Arts Project. He read constantly and came to love the work of artists such as the great Mexican muralists,  José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera.

There were two very important lessons that Keats learnt from his hard childhood. One was always to side with the oppressed. The second was to value and celebrate the lives of ordinary people.

Peter Whistle

If you have read any books by Ezra Jack Keats you will know that they are full of ordinary people and ordinary things.

Also, very importantly for the time that Keats was writing in, the hero of his book, Peter, is a Black child.

The Snowy Day, featuring Peter, was first published in 1962, before the March on Washington, before Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech.

Why did Ezra Jack Keats, who was not Black himself, choose Peter to be Black in his book? Because, Keats said:

None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.

Peter’s family, Peter’s friends, the crowded streets where these children play, all reflect what was the reality of the author’s own childhood and neighborhood: a multiracial New York City, throbbing with children, green ice-cream cones, tenement blocks where the days washing hang on lines and little black cats that have no respect for people.

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After you read Ezra Jack Keats you begin to wonder not why his protagonists are Black and Latino but why more characters in more books are not!

If our lives and streets are filled with multiracial children shouldn’t they fill our books too?

Next author-illustrator we will learn about: Abanindranath Tagore.

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