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Ezra Jack Keats: The Grandfather of Diversity in Children’s Literature

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Ezra Jack Keats, the acclaimed author-illustrator of The Snowy Day, which broke the color barrier in mainstream children’s literature, would have turned 100 on 11 March. He died in 1983, aged 67. His 1962 classic, with its protagonist a little African American boy in an iconic red snowsuit, was instantly embraced across social and racial boundaries. It was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1963 and designated a “book that shaped America” by the Library of Congress in 2012.

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation is making the late author-illustrator’s centenary a year-long celebration with events planned across the country. Birthday parties for Ezra are on the calendars of museums in New YorkSan FranciscoNew OrleansHouston and Los Angeles. Keats stories have inspired an original musical in Minneapolis and a musical revival in Manhattan. A park statue of Keats characters is being designated a Literary Landmark. And an animated holiday special based on Ezra’s books is in the works.

“Ezra wanted all children to be able to see themselves in picture books,” says Deborah Pope, Executive Director of The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which supports efforts to foster children’s love of reading and creative expression in our multicultural world. “With The Snowy Day and the nearly 30 picture books he went on to write and illustrate, Ezra transformed the landscape of children’s literature.”

Ezra Jack Keats

“Many people don’t realize that Ezra wasn’t African American,” Pope says. “However, he knew discrimination and poverty firsthand, and identified with people of different races and ethnicities who suffered similar hardships.”

One of Keats’s signature story elements is that his characters are consistently challenged with real problems that are recognizable to young readers. They deal with them, change their outlook and grow. Yet, as children do, his characters live in their imaginations, a world to which the adult Keats had extraordinary access.

Generations of children have recognized themselves in the books of Ezra Jack Keats, experiencing the joy of a day in the snow, the magic of imagination, the strength in friendship. He knew that experiences like these belong to children of all races and wanted to make sure children understood that, too.

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