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Friday, March 11, 2022

Sharing the Lives of Children

“A child is just a child, no matter what his heritage might be.” - Ezra Jack Keats


Keats, who was born this date in 1916, crossed social boundaries as the first white American picture-book maker to give minority children a central place in children’s literature.

The characters in Keats’ books transcend ethnicity, illustrating family life, simple pleasures, and sometimes complex problems every child encounters.  Keats' books reflect experiences of children growing up in communities around the globe, a commonality tall can understand.

His first attempt (in 1960) at a children’s book was My Dog Is Lost, the story of a Puerto Rican immigrant boy searching for his dog in New York City.  Keats incorporated Spanish words into the story and featured children from Chinatown, Little Italy, Park Avenue and Harlem as central characters.

Then he wrote and illustrated a book featuring a black child called The Snowy Day.  “None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kids — except for token blacks in the background,” he said.   “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along." The Snowy Day has never been out of print since and is considered one of the most important American books of the 20th Century.  It won the 1963 Caldecott Medal for illustration.

"I wanted The Snowy Day to be a chunk of life, the sensory experience in word and picture of what it feels like to hear your own body making sounds in the snow. Crunch...crunch...And the joy of being alive."   
Born into poverty and self-taught as an artist, he honed his craft as a mural painter for the WPA and then by doing publicity pieces for the Army in World War II.  He died of a heart attack in 1983 having illustrated nearly 100 books – 70 by other writers – and winning numerous awards and honors.  His work has been translated into 20 languages.
 “I never expected to be a children’s author,” he said.  The world got better because he was.


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