an ezra jack keats day

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30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay Twenty-Five: Keats’s Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury

w/ an Introduction by Anita Silvey

Viking, 2002.

Keats's_Neighborhood

“This beautiful collection brings together nine of [Jack Ezra Keats’s] best-loved stories, including the 1963 Caldecott Medal-winning book The Snowy Day and Caldecott Honor book Goggles!, plus Whistle for Willie,Peter’s ChairApt. 3, and others. Also included is artwork from an unfinished picture book, The Giant Turnip, published here for the very first time. An introduction by celebrated critic of children’s literature Anita Silvey outlines Keats’s career and inimitable contributions. In addition, four of the most important writers and illustrators working in the field today [Jerry Pinkney, Simms Taback, Reynold Ruffins, & Eric Carle] share their thoughts on Keats and the legacy he left behind. An afterword describes his incredible life, from his childhood in Brooklyn to children’s book legend.” -publisher’s comments

I was thinking I should take a day to post at least one of Ezra Jack Keats’ picture books. Snow usually brings him to mind. Imagine my delight when I found this treasury. walk with me.

“Introduction” by Anita Silvey:

EJKeats“As someone who had experienced both poverty and anti-Semitism, Ezara Jack Keats found himself sympathetic to city children from different races and backgrounds who had suffered as he had. These children mattered to him. But in the early 1960s those children’s faces, and those experiences, simply did not appear in the books that were published.” (7)

Silvey’s opening paragraph introduces (of course) what she wants remembered of Keats. He was both determined and deliberate in his craft to see real life depicted in the picture book: for him this meant urban and multi-cultural landscapes: “In his books […] universal experiences are played out in a city environment, with graffiti and peeling paint, dark corners and alleys, a landscape made beautiful by his own vision” (9).

He had vital support, but he also found himself under fire–even to the point of ‘devastation’ and quitting: “At the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s, he faced the ire of the Council for Interracial Books for Children. They claimed that as a white man Keats had no right to fashion books about black characters; in doing so he was stealing money from legitimate African-American creators” (10). He was eventually persuaded to come back.

“The very success of The Snowy Day opened the door for other creative individuals. those publishing books, working with children, and writing books realized that an audience existed that eagerly sought their own faces and lives reflected in their books. […]By bringing multicultural publishing to the forefront of our consciousness, Keats has influenced children’s books for four decades” (11).

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keats snowy day page

The Snowy Day (1962). Snowy days are magical and Peter’s day captures this from the footsteps in snow, building snowmen and angels, rethinking snowball fights with the bigger kids. I know that the cover, that Peter in his red snow-suit is the iconic image, but the image-right is the one that always lingered with me. This is where the dreaming begins, with this little boy in his bed looking out of the window. The facing page, we see him poised at a gateway.

I love the humor and delight in the story. and the excitement that comes with the next morning’s snow. What will Peter and his friend do on this snowy day. There is as much possibility as there is snow in that parting shot as they move off into the horizon.

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“A Word from Jerry Pinkney” (27) on Keats: “Using his skill as a painter and his compassion as a humanist, he enthralled, entertained, and educated children as well as adults. […] He enlarged the world of children’s literature, by instilling his characters with energy and by filling each page with exquisite design and dazzling color.”

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keats whistleWhistle for Willie  (1964) has Peter wishing he could whistle, it would make for a really nice trick. While we have a fairly straightforward narrative of a boy wanting and trying to whistle, there is this highly imaginative boy who finds play where he stands, spins, or hops. He tried to whistle, couldn’t so he turns round and round; he tries to whistle so instead… He’s going to whistle eventually, he is quite determined on this point, but in the meantime he has colored chalks in his pocket and cracks in the pavement to tread. He wants to whistle for Willie, it is a part of play, a part of growing up (e.g. dad’s hat), but in the meanwhile, he is also content with being a child. If he whistles, that would be awesome, if not…he’s got things to do. You read enough children’s picture books and you begin to realize how wonderfully odd this beautifully rendered little story is.

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keats-he3-lettertoamyA Letter to Amy (1968) finds Peter inviting a girl to his birthday party–the only invitee to get an invitation in writing, and the only invitee who is a girl. Peter is nervous, and the rain outside and the wind that ups and carries the letter out of his hands suits his situation perfectly. He worries whether Amy will come and anticipates some teasing by the boys, but when the story closes with Peter blowing out the candles after making his own wish, you know he’ll be alright, he’s come into his own in this moment.

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keats peters chair bPeter’s Chair (1967) is a story wherein Peter’s chair is awaiting the fate off all of Peter’s other baby-hood furniture: pink paint. First his cradle, then his high-chair! The new baby Susie is causing some new changes around the house, “You’ll have to play more quietly. Remember, we have  a new baby in the house.” The parents are not insensitive to Peter, however, gently calling him inside when he’s run away to the front walk. And neither is Peter willing to change–too much. But he is growing up: he’s outgrown the chair, and he’s come ’round to helping his father paint it pink. The transition into being the big brother and yet allowing himself the childhood antics is quiet. Gifting his character with such confidence in action/personality sets Keats apart.

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“A Word from Simms Taback” (59), on how witnessing Keats work inspired his approach: “I realized that I, too, could be more playful, and so I introduced collage elements to my work. […] I wasn’t thinking only of his technique, which is instantly recognizable, but also of how straightforward, warm, and child-friendly his pictures are.

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keats goggles

Goggles (1969) offers us a glimpse of an afternoon. The younger boys outwit the bigger in this adventure with Peter and his friend Archie. Of course, Willie is there to take part when the big boys want to take the goggles Peter finds from him. I may spoil this for those unfamiliar with this story, but I love that moment when Archie laughingly says, “We sure fooled’em, didn’t we?” and you think: yes, Archie, you sure fooled us. He starts out not saying anything, seeming small and meek, and we worry. But turns out he is clever and brave and just as capable as the bigger, bold-red-shirt wearing Peter who stands up to the boys. In a story all about seeing and misdirection, we understand that we should mind what we think we know, about ourselves and others.

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keats jennies hatJennie’s Hat (1966) features Jennie and her disappointment in the hat her Aunt sends her–“It’s such a plain hat!” Using some bird friends and collage-work, Keats fashions a more delightful hat for his protagonist. The story moves from admiring others’ hats and nature’s wonders to combining the two in a creative act that becomes Jennie’s Hat. Jennie didn’t understand that the plain hat was an opportunity to design something unique to her.

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keats 08_hi_cat_420x216Hi, Cat! (1970) makes Archie its star, a funny actor who turns an ice cream mustache into a gran’pa figure, a paper bag into a Mister Big Face, and a fence into a Tallest Dog on a Walk show. But animals aren’t always cooperative, and the new cat in the neighborhood is especially troublesome. All Archie had said was “Hi, cat!” and hilarity, I mean, trouble ensues. Maybe the cat isn’t so bad to have around after all…he certainly makes for improvisational action and opportunity for Archie. It’s delightful to think he might stick around (after that last scene).

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“A Word from Reynold Ruffins” (89) on Keats: “He could spend days considering character, color, and composition. I’ve watched him ponder one or another color of paper he had hand dipped, trying to choose between them. All such decisions were painstakingly arrived at. Yet from this effort, he panned a golden classic–The Snowy Day. […] In the sixties Ezra believed there should be children’s books characters other than Dick and Jane, their Granny, and her damn blue birds. And he did something about it.”

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keats-k14-apt3Apt. 3 (1971). Sam, with little Ben in tow, take us on a tour of their apartment building as they sort through the sounds and smells to find which apartment was responsible for the harmonica music. They are surprised by what they find–at first frightened and then delighted. The landscape itself will hold the same for children reading/listening to this from homes unfamiliar with apartment living–there will likely be fear at first, but they should find what Sam and Ben do: the magic in the human experience: the different sounds and colors and secrets and stories. They become aware of the importance of paying attention, investigating, and exploring the world with others–and dare I say, through art? Keats brushwork does translate into harmonica.

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“A Word from Eric Carle” (101) “would say Ezra’s sparkling eyes were the first impression I had of this gentle and kind man. […] I remember Ezra as having a keen eye for beautiful women! But most of all, I remember his generous spirit. He was an experienced professional who reached out to me, a greenhorn at the threshold of entering the world of picture book making.” –bless him for that!

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keats louieLouie’s Search (1980). You know those stories where the protagonist goes searching for something and who knows what they end up finding? Treasure falls out of the back of the truck and leads to a pretty hairy situation. But than said hairy situation turns into something remarkable once the enormous shadows settle into a human person. This story seems bizarre to me, one that I do not think would work in any other landscape but the one in which it is placed. I like the way it questions the romance other picture books spin with regards to the subject matter it tackles.

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keats - pet showPet Show! (1972) You’ll get a blue ribbon if you’ll just show up for the pet show with your pet, which makes it tricky when Archie’s cat fails to make an appearance–anywhere. Archie has to get creative. He brings Al. But the cat does finally arrive and in the unexpected company of an old woman. In a story about a diverse but close community and the personality of it and the individual, little wonder that uncomplicated ending about cats and ribbons and who and what belongs to whom.

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keats _ezra jackThe collection closes with “About the Author” who was born Jacob Ezra Katz on March 11, 1916. I will leave it for you to read, only to conclude as it does: “Keats gave the world more than one hundred books featuring children from every race and ethnicity. Keats never forgot the faces and experiences of his childhood, and in his stories and art he made his neighborhood known and loved throughout the world.”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeanie March says:

    What a beautiful book!

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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