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New York Exhibit Highlights Books About African Americans

  • Jane Friedman

Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Republican Charles Baker reads 'The Snowy Day,' by Ezra Jack Keats on National Literacy Day to children at a toy store in Canton, MA, USA. (File Photo - October 7, 2010)

Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Republican Charles Baker reads 'The Snowy Day,' by Ezra Jack Keats on National Literacy Day to children at a toy store in Canton, MA, USA. (File Photo - October 7, 2010)

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. That's a Jewish name. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Katz was white.

Early in his career, he changed his name to Keats, a very Christian name.

Keat's 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.

Keat's work is now the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Jewish Museum.

“Many people think he was African American. Nobody I encountered knew he was Jewish," said Claudia Nahson, the curator.

Why did Katz change his name?

“Anti-Semitism was prevalent still after World War II," said Nahson. "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 kid newly arrived in New York. Juanito was trying to find his dog who was lost.

“There were not so many books that featured minorities at that point," said Nahson. "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. He goes out in the snow for the first time and comes home with a snowball in his pocket. He expects to find it the next morning.

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 is an African American and 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," said Pinkney. "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, grew up poor. His family struggled.

But he didn’t write about his own neighborhood or about Jewish children.

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

Jerry Pinkney has won awards for his book illustrations. He says more needs to be done to diversify children's literature, but he is grateful to Keats.

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

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats continues in New York through January and then travels to other US cities.

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