Recognizing the Impact of Ezra Jack Keats

Posted Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - 09:37
Catalog cover for the Jewish Museum’s celebration of Ezra Jack Keats’s work

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Ezra Jack Keats’s groundbreaking picture book The Snowy Day (Penguin, 1962), The Jewish Museum has created the first major United States exhibition for the Caldecott-winning illustrator. “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” show features over 80 original works, from preliminary sketches to final paintings and collages, and will remain at the New York City museum until January 29, 2012. It will then travel to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts (June 26–October 14, 2012); the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (November 15, 2012–February 24, 2013); and the Akron Art Museum in Ohio (March–June 2013).

Keats worked during the height of the civil rights movement and was the first author/illustrator to depict an African-American protagonist in a full-color picture book. “His act of bravery was matched by that of the Newbery-Caldecott committee when they honored the book [in 1963],” say Anita Silvey, author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book (Roaring Brook, 2009). “Because a wide range of libraries bought copies, often The Snowy Day was the only title that children saw for years to feature a child of color.”

Librarians are represented at the exhibit as well, both in narration and artifacts. Charlemae Hill Rollins, head of the Chicago Public Library children’s department for 31 years and the first black president of ALA’s Children’s Services Division (1957–58), is quoted as saying in 1964 that Snowy Day was her “only bright hope in this ‘summer of Goldwater’”—referring to Sen. Barry Goldwater’s (R-Ariz.) opposition to the Civil Rights Act that July. Like Keats, Rollins also campaigned to end stereotyped portrayals of black people in children’s literature, and was vocal in her reaction to the artwork for Snowy Day sequel Whistle for Willie (Penguin, 1964).

The exhibit also features a 1965 letter to the editor of the Saturday Review by another librarian, Irene Roop of Hartford, Connecticut. In it, Roop defends Keats against Nancy Larrick’s criticism in “The All-White World of Children’s Literature,” September 11): “Rarely was there ever a picture book more warmly received . . . created with charming simplicity and will live in the hearts of children,” Roop wrote.

Much of the artwork and items on display came from the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. “The variety of his art comes through with the exhibit because the original art tells it all,” said Ellen Ruffin, curator of the collection. “I believe the exhibit gives the true essence of Keats’s use of color, his delight in the backdrop of neighborhood, and his love of story.”

The museum has made available online K–8 and middle-school  curriculum guides for the exhibit, and will host two workshops, the first specifically for librarians on September 23 and the second for other educators on October 27. A 92-page hardcover book about the exhibit is available from the Jewish Museum Store.