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Celebrating Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack KeatsJack­ie: 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

Last Stop on Market StreetI’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.

The Snowy DayPhyl­lis: 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.”

LouieJack­ie: 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.

Maggie and the PiratePhyl­lis: 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.

The Trip, Louie's Search, Regards to the Man in the Moon

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.

The Trip, Jennie's Hat, Dreams

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.

Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-book MakerWe 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.

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A Conversation Between Avi and Gary D. Schmidt

Avi and Gary D. SchmidtWhen Avi pub­lished his 1950s’ era nov­el, Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor, he ded­i­cat­ed the book to Gary D. Schmidt, fel­low author, fel­low read­er, fel­low con­nois­seur of noir detec­tive nov­els and his­to­ry. The Bookol­o­gist is priv­i­leged to lis­ten in on this con­ver­sa­tion between two authors who are so great­ly admired for the depth and tex­ture with­in their books. Enjoy!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Ray Brad­bury once wrote a short arti­cle enti­tled “Mem­o­ries Shape the Voice” in which he talked about the pow­er­ful ways that his child­hood mem­o­ries affect­ed the mak­ing of his Green­town, Illi­nois. It wasn’t just the details that would come back to him as he cre­at­ed the world of his short stories—it was how he felt about those details: the beau­ty (to him) of the town’s fac­to­ries, the ter­ror (to him) of the gul­lies. It seems to me that this is true also of your evo­ca­tion of 1951 Brook­lyn. Is that fair to say?

Avi:
It is fair. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in NYC, but I con­fess I still think of myself as a New York­er. I’ve writ­ten more about the city than any oth­er place, from City of Light, City of Darka dystopi­an graph­ic novel—to Sophia’s Wara tale of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. It’s not just “home” in a phys­i­cal sense, it’s my emo­tion­al home. And yet, I now live in the Rocky Moun­tains, nine thou­sand feet up, in a com­mu­ni­ty of thir­teen, the near­est neigh­bor a mile away.

When writ­ing Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor, which is set, for the most part, in my boy­hood neigh­bor­hood, it was easy for me to walk home from school, play stoop­ball, go to the local movie the­ater. I eas­i­ly recall sit­ting on the front stoop read­ing com­ic books with my friends—even which com­ic books.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One part of that world is the phys­i­cal set­ting: Pete’s apart­ment, the streets, the nurs­ing home, the school. Though I sus­pect that being in these set­tings brought a great deal of nos­tal­gic plea­sure, how did these set­tings play a part in the plot­ting of the book?

Avi:
I think all writ­ers depend on sen­so­ry mem­o­ry. Con­sid­er Ritman’s Books where, in the book, Pete hangs out. There was such a book­store in my neigh­bor­hood, which I loved to go to. The same for that movie the­ater where I would go for the Sat­ur­day morn­ing kids’ shows. My Brook­lyn was very much a small town. There was every­thing I need­ed, and all I need­ed to con­struct the book. Even when I had to go beyond, by subway—I love the city subways—it gave me great plea­sure to write about them.

Brooklyn Heights SchoolGary D. Schmidt:
The school is par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigu­ing to me, since it seems to me to be act­ing in inter­est­ing the­mat­ic ways. School, for Pete, is a place of mono­lith­ic pow­er: the teacher. There is one point of view, one way of respond­ing to Amer­i­ca, one way of sit­ting and respond­ing and behav­ing. Toward the end of the book, Pete calls his teacher, Mr. Don­a­van, a bully—and it seems at that point that Mr. Don­a­van rep­re­sents all of the school. But does it seem to you as well that the school, with its insis­tent pow­er, also rep­re­sents the way the coun­try was act­ing toward dis­sent at this time?

Avi:
Mr. Don­a­van is based on a teacher I did have. I describe him as I remem­ber him. But don’t for­get Mr. Malakows­ki, who is also real, and a nice guy. He was, in fact, my favorite teacher. Par­ents think they know about their children’s schools, but I think in some way schools con­sti­tute a par­al­lel uni­verse to home life. They don’t always inter­sect. Pete’s par­ents don’t real­ly know what’s going on there, and Pete doesn’t want them to get involved. That, I think, is typ­i­cal. In today’s world, the old­er a kid gets the less he/she wants par­ents to be involved in school. Yes, the school does rep­re­sent the coun­try at that time, but it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that it was not the whole coun­try.

Gary D. Schmidt:
And of course, there are the char­ac­ters that are so vivid—an Avi trade­mark. I think espe­cial­ly of Mr. Ord­son, the blind man to whom Peter reads. He reads the news­pa­per, because Mr. Ord­son wants to keep up with cur­rent events. And he is a wise and good friend to Pete. You’ve writ­ten that Mr. Ord­son is based on a real per­son to whom you, as a young ado­les­cent, read. Are there oth­er char­ac­ters based on folks from your past? Per­haps Pete’s father, a noble char­ac­ter? Have you, as William Faulkn­er once advised, cut up your rel­a­tives to use them in your plot?

Avi:
How can I say this? Pete’s father is based on what my father was not. My father was not a nice man. Very hard on me. Abu­sive. Don’t get me going. Any­way, I think Pete’s father is what I would have liked my father to be. I bet you’ve worked from that kind of oppo­site, too. Cathar­tic, per­haps. On the oth­er hand, Pete’s old­er broth­er is some­what based on my own old­er broth­er who, like many old­er broth­ers, can be patron­iz­ing to younger broth­ers. That said, a major part of the sto­ry is not about fam­i­lies that pull apart—there is some of that—but how fam­i­lies stay togeth­er. And Kat—a key fic­tion­al char­ac­ter in the book—is drawn to Pete’s fam­i­ly as much as she is to Pete.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One oth­er ele­ment from the past: the noir voic­es, the sounds of the hard-boiled detec­tive fic­tion that you read, that I read, that we both still read. At times, Pete leaves the first-per­son nar­ra­tive to go into that hard-boiled voice. I think you prob­a­bly had a lot of fun with that, right?

Avi:
I adored writ­ing those sec­tions. I think there is some­thing unique­ly Amer­i­can in that noir voice. The tough love. The sar­casm. The wit. The truth-telling. The very care­ful lit­er­ary con­struc­tion, all of which masks a deep-root­ed sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, an embar­rassed, if you will, search­ing for love. Very com­plex. The thought that I can share that—introduce it—to my read­ers gives me great plea­sure.

Gary D. Schmidt:
In this McCarthy–era nov­el, Pete is thrown into a world in which fear inspires hatred. As news spreads that his father does not accept an easy vision of a per­fect Amer­i­ca but believes that the sto­ries of work­ers and African Amer­i­cans also need full play in tales of the devel­op­ment of the coun­try, Pete is ostra­cized, since it is assumed that his father must be a Com­mie! Since all his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is writ­ten both about a time in the past and for read­ers in the present, it seems to me that your nov­el is a pow­er­ful warn­ing against assum­ing that any nar­ra­tive about our coun­try is sim­ple and uncom­pli­cat­ed.

bk_go-between_160Avi:
One of my favorite notions about his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is expressed in the open­ing lines of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. “The past is a for­eign coun­try: they do things dif­fer­ent­ly there.” I find that a fas­ci­nat­ing idea because I don’t entire­ly agree with it. What I mean is, yes, the past is a dif­fer­ent coun­try, but they do not always do things dif­fer­ent­ly there. I know, from what I’ve read of what you’ve writ­ten, you under­stand this. Our goal is to make the past mean­ing­ful to the present, right? To give it life. Amer­i­ca has such a com­plex and fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry. But how lit­tle peo­ple know of it! How many great sto­ries there are yet to tell!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete must deal with some hard truths: in the nov­el, he devel­ops strong anger toward both his broth­er and his great-uncle, anger which does not get resolved in the nar­ra­tive. At the same time, he comes to under­stand that his father lives a life that is larg­er and per­haps more noble and hon­or­able than he had imag­ined. Is it fair to say that in one way, this nov­el is about the lim­its of knowledge—that we can­not tru­ly know some­one else com­plete­ly?

Avi:
Pete’s father tells Pete: “Noth­ing is sim­ple. Know that and you know half the world’s wis­dom.” Oh, how I believe that! Bet you do, too. Some­where I read, “Poor writ­ing makes what you know sim­ple. Good writ­ing makes it com­plex.” Right?

Gary D. Schmidt:
Per­haps this is the hubris of the McCarthy era as well—the assump­tion that I have the right to know every­thing about some­one else. I note this in the con­text of a world in which it seems to be the grow­ing assump­tion that we do have the right to know what we want to know about anoth­er person—something that Pete’s father insists is not true at all.

Avi:
Hey! Pri­va­cy, the last fron­tier! It’s one of the most impor­tant things about book read­ing. It’s tru­ly pri­vate. Far more so than even dig­i­tal read­ing! The oth­er day—in San Francisco—I passed a used book store. Out front was a box labeled “Free Books.” Think of it! No one would know if I picked up a book. Or read it. Or thought about it. Or what I thought. No one. And yet, and yet—and I know you believe this, too—nothing is more inti­mate than shar­ing thoughts. That said, one of the most pow­er­ful things a per­son can have—for good or ill—is a secret. As a kid I recall play­ing a game we called Secrets. The idea being that you and your friend each shared a real secret. A dan­ger­ous game, when you think about it.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete decides that he will be a Giants fan, going against Brooklyn’s fanat­ic loy­al­ty to the Dodgers—who, we know, will one day betray that loy­al­ty. I know this is, on one lev­el, sim­ply Pete’s desire to get back at the oth­ers around him for their hatred. But it also seems to me that Pete is assert­ing his right to be different—exactly what McCarthy­ists feared and pros­e­cut­ed, and, per­haps, exact­ly what our own cul­ture seems to fear: the per­son who does not buy into the cur­rent vision of the Amer­i­can dream: to acquire. This is not a mes­sage nov­el; it first does what E. M. Forster claims the writer must do: make the read­er turn the page. But at the same time, you are mak­ing some pow­er­ful sug­ges­tions that warn against a too easy accep­tance of the culture’s claims upon us.

Avi:
Being loy­al to a false ide­al can be very destruc­tive. Being loy­al to high ide­al can be very dan­ger­ous. Pete’s shift from being a Brook­lyn Dodger fan to a New York Giants fan is some­thing that came right out of my life—and, yes, in 1951 when the Giants won the Nation­al Pen­nant just as I recount it in the book. It was my first step in becom­ing inde­pen­dent from my fam­i­ly. But when you become inde­pen­dent of your family—or your culture—you pay a price. More often than not you are reject­ed, told that you have aban­doned them, who­ev­er or what­ev­er them might be. But being dif­fer­ent, being inde­pen­dent, is lib­er­at­ing. In Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor, the word trai­tor becomes a code word for “being dif­fer­ent.” In the sto­ry being dif­fer­ent enrich­es Pete’s life. The sto­ry begins by his no longer being a kid. It ends by his becom­ing a kid again—but far deep­er in expe­ri­ence. Hey, that’s why I ded­i­cat­ed the book to you. You’ve lived your life that way. Right?

Bookol­o­gist:
Thank you both for this inter­view. It opens many paths to explore and ideas to con­sid­er, but we expect­ed no less from the two of you.

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