Benjamin Katz and Augusta Podgainy were born in Warsaw,
Poland. However, they did not meet until they had both emigrated
to the United States. Continuing the Polish custom, their
wedding was arranged by a matchmaker. After the marriage,
the two settled in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, New York.
In a two-family house at no. 438 Vermont Street, their third
child, Jacob Ezra Katz was born on March 11, 1916.
At an early age, Jacob, known later to the world as Ezra
Jack Keats, became interested in art. His mother encouraged
Keats' talent, but his father seemed only to criticize Keats'
ability. Working at Pete's Coffee Shop in Greenwich Village,
Benjamin Katz knew how hard earning a living could be. He
felt that his son could never really be successful as an
artist. However, his father did purchase tubes of paint
for Keats under the pretense of having traded bowls of soup
to starving artists. "If you don't think artists starve,
well, let me tell you. One man came in the other day and
swapped me a tube of paint for a bowl of soup."
Keats did win the approval of his father when he was paid
twenty-five cents for painting an advertisement for a local
store at the age of eight. Finally, Benjamin thought his
son might be able to earn a living with his art, as a sign
When Benjamin Katz died on January 1935, Keats, on the day
before his high school graduation, had to identify his father's
body. For the first time he learned that his father had
been proud of his work. In his Caldecott Medal speech in
1963, Keats shared the experience. "I found myself staring
deep into his secret feelings. There in his wallet were
worn and tattered newpaper clippings of the notices of the
awards I had won. My silent admirer and supplier, he had
been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship
and his real pride in my work."
Although Keats won three scholarships to art school, he
was unable to attend. He worked to support his family by
day and took art classes at night when he could. In 1937,
he secured a job with the Works Progress Administration
(WPA) working as a mural painter. After three years time,
Keats moved on to work as a comic book illustrator. Then
in 1942, Keats began work on the staff of Fawcett Publications
illustrating backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip.
On April 13, 1943, Keats entered the service of the United
States Air Corp. Taking advantage of his skill as an artist,
the army trained him to design camouflage patterns. Keats
was given an honorary discharge in 1945, and he returned
to New York. Keats suffered a period of health problems
and melancholy after his return home.
Two years after WWII Jacob Ezra Katz legally changed his
name to Ezra Jack Keats. This was most certainly a reaction
to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the time.
In 1954, Jubilant for Sure by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing
was published. The book set in the mountains of Kentucky
was the first book Keats illustrated for children. Keats,
in an unpublished autobiography, stated: "I didn't even
ask to get into children's books." In the eleven years that
followed, Keats illustrated fifty-four books.
Dog is Lost, co-authored by Pat Cherr, was published
in 1960 and was Keats' first attempt at authoring a children's
book. The main character is a Puerto Rican boy named Juanito
who has lost his dog in New York and meets children from
different sections of New York such as Chinatown and Little
Italy. Keats was innovative in his use of minority children
as central characters.
In the two years that followed, Keats worked on a book featuring
a little boy named Peter. Peter was inspired by an article
Keats had clipped from Life magazine in 1940. "Then
began an experience that turned my life around--working
on a book with a black kid as hero. 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. Years
before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a
little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before
I'd begun to illustrate children's books. I just loved looking
at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book."
The book featuring Peter, The Snowy Day, received
the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book
for children in 1963. Peter appears in six more books growing
from a small boy in The Snowy Day to adolescence
in Pet Show.
Keats authored and/or illustrated more than 85 books for
children. In 1980, he was awarded the University of Southern
Mississippi Medallion for outstanding contributions
in the field of children's literature.
On May 6, 1983, Ezra Jack Keats died from a heart attack.
Jack Keats: A Biography with Illustrations by Dean
Engel and Florence Freedman; Silver Moon Press,
Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-Book Maker by Brian
Alderson; Pelican Publishing Company, 1994.
Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults:
A Selection of Sketches from
about the Author edited by Laurie Collier and Joyce
Nakamura; Gale Research, 1993.
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