Born on March 11, 1916 to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Brooklyn native Ezra Jack Keats broke ground in children’s literature with his picture books featuring young protagonists of color in urban settings. Keats, who made his picture-book debut in 1954 as illustrator of Jubilant for Sure by Elizabeth Hubbard Lansing, moved into the literary spotlight when he won the 1963 Caldecott Medal for his first solo effort, Viking’s The Snowy Day. In total, Keats wrote and illustrated 22 books and illustrated many more before his death in 1983. In addition to his impressive canon, Keats’s legacy endures through diverse programs orchestrated by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which has organized an Ezra Jack Keats 100th Birthday Read-a-thon on March 11 at Books of Wonder in Manhattan.
At the event, nine children’s authors and illustrators will read aloud one of Keats’s books to an audience that will include, across three sessions, the entire second grade – close to 170 children – at New York City’s P.S. 11. The impressive roster of children’s book creators participating in the Read-a-thon and the Keats titles they are reading are: Paul O. Zelinsky (John Henry), Pat Cummings (The Trip), Sean G. Qualls (A Letter to Amy), Andrea Davis Pinkney (The Snowy Day), Brian Floca (Peter’s Chair), Marisabina Russo (Over in the Meadow), Nina Crews (Maggie and the Pirate), Sophie Blackall (Regards to the Man in the Moon), and David Ezra Stein (Whistle for Willie).
Each child attending the event will receive one of Keats’s picture books. Each teacher (as well as the library at P.S. 11) will receive a set of six Keats titles. All the books by Keats were donated by Penguin Random House. In addition, each teacher will receive one book by each of the authors and illustrators participating in the celebration, as a gift from the EJK Foundation.
For Deborah Pope, executive director of the EJK Foundation since 2000, celebrating the centennial of the author’s birth holds singular meaning. Her father, Martin Pope, now 97, was a lifelong friend of Keats and was holding the author’s hand when he died.
She explained that her father and Keats became fast friends when, as classmates at their public junior high school in the East New York section of Brooklyn, they both failed algebra. “Ezra simply couldn’t do algebra, and my father talked back to the teacher, so they both ended up failing!” she said. “They developed a very special friendship and were almost like brothers – without the rivalry. Ezra was like an uncle to my sister and me. He was always very gracious and treated us with respect as well as humor.
Incorporated in 1964, the EJK Foundation became active when Keats died. His will directed that the Foundation use the royalties from his books for social good. Martin Pope, as the Foundation’s president, and his late wife, Lillie Pope, as vice-president, focused the organization’s efforts on creating and supporting programs aimed at bolstering children’s learning opportunities, love of reading, and belief in themselves.
The EJK Foundation, whose programs (expanded from those implemented by Pope’s parents) now include a bookmaking competition for young writers and illustrators, grants supporting programs in public schools and libraries that demonstrate creativity and cooperation, and the annual Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, which recognizes emerging children’s authors and illustrators of picture books celebrating originality, diversity, and family. The Foundation also supports fellowships for the study of children’s literature and scholarships in art and music to universities, museums, music schools, and other public organizations.
Authors Eagerly Sign on to Read
The Read-a-thon, noted Pope, is a fitting way to honor Keats’s 100th birthday, since it reflects the respect his fellow book creators have for him – everyone she contacted agreed to participate in the event – as well as his devotion to children and to supporting the public school system. “Ezra is revered in the literary community, and this event is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to celebrate his books and his world view, and to show our admiration, respect, and gratitude for all that he accomplished,” she said.
“Thrilled” to be invited to read at the event, Sophie Blackall said she “did not hesitate for a second” before accepting. Recipient of the 2016 Caldecott Medal for Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick, Blackall also won the EJK Book Award in 2003 for her debut picture book, Ruby’s Wish. “I received that award 13 years ago, but it is truly a lifetime honor,” she said. “Making books can be such an isolated experience, and more than anything this award made me feel connected to the children’s book community. And connection is such an important part of what Keats’s books accomplish. They let children, especially children of color, connect to books in a way they perhaps hadn’t done before, because they are able to see themselves in the stories.”
Read-a-thon participant Sean G. Qualls praised Keats’s ability to create stories that are “so simple yet so profound” – and universal. In The Snowy Day, he elaborated, “Keats created a day-in-the-life story about a boy, Peter, and his surroundings, and the boy just happens to be African-American. Free of social agendas, I believe, Keats recognized race but then saw beyond it to create stories relatable to all humanity.” Adding that Keats “is one of my artistic heroes,” Qualls added that he is honored to be part of the birthday celebration, and hopes that the young attendees “will fall in love with his books as I did, and be inspired to create and share their own stories.”
Andrea Davis Pinkney has a special connection to Keats: her picture-book biography of the author, A Poem of Peter, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, will be published by Viking in the fall. She was pleased to be asked to read The Snowy Day at the Read-a-thon, since it played a significant role in her childhood. “Back then, I didn’t fully realize that Keats had transformed children’s books,” she explained. “I only saw what I saw – I saw my brown-skinned self celebrated through Peter’s sense of wonder and discovery. I think I slept with my copy of The Snowy Day. That’s how much the book meant to me. I’ve since learned that I wasn’t the only one who embraced Keats’s books like they were bed pillows. His characters and settings bring such comfort.”
The Read-a-thon strikes yet another personal note for Pinkney, who lives on the same Brooklyn street where P.S. 11 is located. “I know these students – I see them coming and going every day,” she reflected. “They’re the kids whose lives are beautifully reflected in the city scenes Ezra created in his books that celebrate street corners, front stoops, graffiti, manholes, and storefronts. And that includes black and Latino children and families, homeless people, and colorful construction workers. Ezra Jack Keats is still bringing it home – 100 years after he was born. And kids today are still rejoicing.”