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Exhibit Salutes Children's Author Who Introduced Minority Characters

  • Jane Friedman

In "The Snowy Day," and his other books, Ezra Jack Keats crossed social boundaries by giving minorities a central place in children’s literature.

In "The Snowy Day," and his other books, Ezra Jack Keats crossed social boundaries by giving minorities a central place in children’s literature.

'The Snowy Day' author Ezra Jack Keats crossed social boundaries

Shakespeare asked, "What's in a Name?"

A lot, it turns out. Take Ezra Jack Keats, the famous children’s book author and illustrator, who died in 1983.

Keats wrote and illustrated more than 20 children’s books. Most featured African-American children at a time when that was unheard of.

But here's the surprise. Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Early in his career, Katz - who was white - changed his name to Keats, a Christian name.

Keats' groundbreaking book, "The Snowy Day," published 50 years ago, was the first color picture book featuring an African-American child, and not in a racist way.

Keats' work is now the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Jewish Museum. Children's author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats in 1973

Children's author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats in 1973

“Many people think he was African-American. Nobody I encountered knew he was Jewish," says curator Claudia Nahson. “Anti-Semitism was prevalent still after World War II. It was hard to find a job as an artist with a Jewish name.”

Keats broke boundaries. His first book, "My Dog Is Lost," followed Juanito, a Puerto Rican child newly arrived in New York, who tries to find his lost dog.

“There were not so many books that featured minorities at that point," Nahson says. "So that was a kind of prequel to pave the way for him to create Peter.”

Peter, the main character in "The Snowy Day," is a kid like any other. After going out in the snow for the first time, he returns home with a snowball in his pocket, expecting to still find it later on.

Keats wrote six more books about Peter, showing him in his gritty New York slum at a time when children’s books showed white children in well-groomed neighborhoods playing with other white kids.

Jerry Pinkney, an African-American, is a children's book illustrator. He read "The Snowy Day" to his own children.

“We were trying to find reading material for them and naturally, as people of color, we were looking for books that would reflect their image or mirror back their image," Pinkney says. "For people of color, all of a sudden there was this book that dealt with contemporary African-American life.”

The illustrations in this exhibit are bold in color and striking in their depiction of African-American kids, with the facades of their apartment buildings covered in graffiti.

Keats - or Katz - who grew up poor, didn’t write about his own neighborhood or about Jewish children.

“The whiteness of children’s literature was a major concern," Nahson says. "He said he created Peter because he should have been there all along. That absence didn’t make sense to him."

Jerry Pinkney, who's won awards for his book illustrations, feels more should be done to diversify children's literature, but he's grateful to Keats.

“There’s a tremendous sense of courage to risk entering an area that had not really been gone into. Ezra was really the first," Pinkney says. "My appreciation and respect continue to grow.”

After completing its New York run in January, the exhibit, “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” will travel on to other U.S. cities.

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