Jackie: This is the time of year when I read the Travel Section of the Sunday paper. I just want to go away from gritty snow, brown yards and come back to Spring. Well, there are no tickets on the shelf this year so Phyllis and I are taking a trip to the city created by Ezra Jack Keats. And why not? This month, this year marks his one-hundredth birthday.
As our travel guide we’re taking The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats (Yale University Press, 2011), written by Claudia Nahsen to coincide with The Snowy Day’s 50th anniversary and the showing of many of his works at the Jewish Museum, New York
I’ve been thinking of Keats since I read Last Stop on Market Street, this year’s Newbery Award winner, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Robinson’s wonderful depictions of the urban landscape and the text’s suggestion that beauty is all around us, reminded me of Keats’s city scenes. Often they are set in his childhood home in Depression Era Brooklyn but enhanced with Keats’s brilliant collages, sketches, and jazzy palette.
A bit about his life, which I learned from Nahsen’s beautiful book: Jacob Ezra Katz was born in New York, on March 11, 1916. He was the youngest of three children born to immigrant parents in a “loveless marriage.” He grew up in a family marked by strife and unhappiness. He felt invisible as a child and believed “’life was measured by anguish.’” (Nahsen,p. 5). Art saved him. And in his art he gave life and validity to the streets he remembered from his childhood and to the kids, often invisible to society, who live on those streets.
Phyllis: And up until publication of A Snowy Day, the first full-color picture book to feature an African American protagonist, those kids were virtually invisible in picture books as well. I especially love how Keats makes us see the city and the children and grown-ups who live in it with fresh eyes—his art includes graffiti, trashcans, and the struggles and celebrations of childhood. Nahsen quotes Keats: “Everything in life is waiting to be seen!” While some people criticized Keats, a white writer, for writing about black characters in The Snowy Day, the poet Langston Hughes wished he had “grandchildren to give it [the book] to.” Keats felt the criticisms deeply but continued to tell and illustrate the stories in his world “waiting to be seen.”
Jackie: Keats wrote and illustrated twenty-two books in his career. The ones I know are just as fresh, just as in tune with the lives of children as they were when he wrote them. We all know Peter of A Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, A Letter to Amy. But Keats’s Louie is not quite as familiar. Louie is a quiet, kid who hardly ever speaks. But when he sees the puppet Gussie (Keats’s mother’s name) at Susie and Roberto’s puppet show, he stands up and yells “Hello!, Hello! Hello!” Susie and Roberto decide to have Gussie ask Louie to sit down so they can get on with the show. After the show they bring Gussie out so Louie can hold the puppet. Then the boy goes home, eventually sleeps and dreams he is falling and kids are laughing at him. When he wakes up, his mother tells him someone slipped a note under the door—“Go outside and follow the long green string.” At the end of the green string is—Gussie! There is so much to love about this story—a sensitive portrayal of a child who is somehow different, gets laughed at, yelled at by some kids; two kids, Susie and Roberto, who treat Louie with great kindness; and a hopeful ending.
Nahsen says: “…neglected characters, who had hitherto been living in the margins of picture books or had simply been absent from children’s literature take pride of place in Keats’s oeuvre.” She quotes from his unpublished autobiography: “When I did my first book about a black kid I wanted black kids and white kids to know that he’s there.” So it is with Louie. Keats reminds readers that the quiet kids, the kids who march to a different drum, the kids who live behind the broken doors, or on broken-down buses and can only have a cricket for a pet (Maggie and the Pirate) are there.
Phyllis: Just as Keats portrays the real lives of kids who live in buses or city apartments without “even any steps in front of the door to sit on,” he doesn’t shy away from the small and large griefs and troubles of childhood. In Maggie and the Pirate, Maggie’s pet cricket, taken by a boy who admires the cricket’s cage, accidentally drowns in a river. Maggie and her friends hold a cricket funeral, and when the “pirate,” a boy who didn’t mean for the cricket to die but wanted the cage “real bad,” brings Maggie the cage with a new cricket, the children
“all sat down together.
Nobody said anything.
They listened to the new cricket singing.
Crickets all around joined in.”
Tragedies and consolation in the death of a cricket—a world seen through children’s eyes.
Jackie: Keats came back to Louie with three other books and used this character to help him present some of the other problems of childhood—The Trip (1978), Louie’s Search (1980), and Regards to the Man in the Moon (1981).
The Trip tells us that Louie and his Mom move to a new neighborhood. Louie’s Search takes place after Louie has moved to a new neighborhood. “’What kind of neighborhood is this?’ thought Louie. “Nobody notices a kid around here.” He puts on a paper sack hat and paints his nose red and goes out for a walk. Eventually he picks up an object which has fallen off a junk wagon and so encounters the scary junkman Barney. Barney is huge and thinks Louie has stolen this object. “’Come back, you little crook,’ Barney bellowed.” They go to Louie’s house where Barney tells his Mom, “Your son’s a crook!’”
What Louie had found was a music box. When he holds it the box makes music. When he drops it, it stops. Barney decides to give the music box to Louie and stays for tea with Louie and his mom. It’s the beginning of a wonderful relationship that ends with a wedding and Louie finding the Dad he hoped for.
Phyllis: Another thread throughout Keats’ work is the power of imagination. Louie in The Trip imagines a plane flying him to his old neighborhood. Jennie in Jennie’s Hat imagines a beautiful hat instead of the plain one her aunt has sent, and the birds, who she feeds daily, swoop down and decorate her hat with leaves, pictures, flowers (paper and real), colored eggs, a paper fan, and a pink valentine. In Dreams, Roberto imagines (or does it really happen?) that when a paper mouse he has made tumbles from his windowsill, its shadow “grew bigger—and bigger—and BIGGER” until it scared off the dog terrorizing his friend’s kitten on the sidewalk below.
We haven’t really even talked about his art and his brilliant use of collage and color. Just as Keats’s books celebrate the power of the imagination, Anita Silvey says that Keats took “absolute joy in the creative process.” We can share that joy in his books in stories and art that recognize that everyone needs to be seen, everyone has a place, and everyone, joyously, matters.
Jackie: Brian Alderson in Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-Book Maker writes that in The Snowy Day Keats “came home to his proper place: a colorist celebrating the hidden lives of the city kids.” I would add that that can be said for most of his works. And we are the richer for it.