Kidlit Greats is one of my very favorite blog features to write. As I spotlight picture book masters who've created dozens of timeless treasures, I also get to introduce my daughters to fantastic pieces of literature - filled to the brim with wonder, captivating characters and unforgettable narratives.
It's a tremendous honor to feature Ezra Jack Keats as my latest Kidlit Great. If you are a fan of Keats, or if you'd like to get to know his work a bit better, come along! There's much to discuss.
Here's the stack of Keats books that we borrowed from our local library this month. (Thanks as always to the wonderful team at Geneva Public Library District!)
Upon pulling Keats' books from the shelves, I immediately noticed that they are quite petite, by modern standards. This was GREAT news for our crew! My little gals tend to gravitate toward tiny titles, such as Pierre and Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak and the Mr. and Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves.
My daughters love stealing private moments with these small books, turning the pages tenderly and narrating what they see in the pictures. Here's my Little Miss L with Jennie's Hat by Keats.
When we got our books home from the library, I spread them all out to take in the cover art. I was smitten. Beautiful children. Glorious color. Keats' name, in his signature all-caps. Without even cracking the covers, you can tell: Keats has an aesthetic and narrative perspective all his own.
Keats is perhaps best known as the author of The Snowy Day, winner of The Caldecott Medal. It's a superb book that transports you directly into an urban winter wonderland, as experienced by a little boy named Peter, who recurs in a number of Keats' books.
The Snowy Day provides many examples of Keats' genius. I'll take you on a walk through this title, as well as several others, to illustrate the beauty and power in this Kidlit Great's work.
7 Things to Know and Love about Ezra Jack Keats
1. Vibrant Cityscapes
Many of Keats' picture books take place in the heart of the city. The architecture and everyday objects that come into view layer to form a very real, very vibrant world. Keats' representation of urbanity doesn't soften or romanticize. Instead, we experience city elements naturally, as they factor into our main character's thoughts and decisions.
In The Snowy Day, we see fresh snow from young Peter's perspective - through the grid of his apartment window. Soft white powder tops the varied heights of near and distant high rises (very different from what my daughters see, when they look out their front door after a snow). When Peter steps out into the cold, he meets a giant pile of white stacked high to clear the way for cars and pedestrians (an accurate representation of a city practice - I can attest, as a 10-year Chicagoan). Keats uses a light and poetic touch when incorporating these hallmarks of city living.
2. Friendship Narratives
Keats tells the stories of children. Plain and simple. He isn't heavy handed with morals either. Through his characters, Keats portrays real-life challenges and shows how characters deal with and overcome them.
In A Letter to Amy, my favorite of Keats' books, Peter wants to invite a little girl to his birthday party. Even as he heads out to the mail the letter, he finds himself worrying what his male friends will say if a girl attends the party. Peter's dilemma is a perfect example of how Keats tells stories that are relevant and personal to all small children. My kids (ages 2 to 5) instantly related to the problems faced by Peter and Keats' other wonderfully real characters.
3. Brilliant Color
Can we just pause for a minute to take in this spread? The pink, the orange, the yellow, Peter's beautiful skin, his patterned shirt. Every single piece of color, every element of texture, is heaven.
While examples of Keats' masterful, emotional use of color are found in all of his books, I found the hues in Whistle for Willie particularly moving. Keats' illustrations often present an abstraction of true color, but the hues Keats selects purely convey mood and add dimension to our understanding of city life.
4. Collage & Cut-outs
Collage is not super common in the picture book world, but Keats does it often... and brilliantly. In the laundry line scene (above) in Maggie and the Pirate, Keats' clothing cut-outs somehow are able to convey both stiffness and movement.
Throughout his work, the layering and interplay of collaged elements have whatever effect Keats intends. Sometimes, his juxtapositions convey discomfort and danger, while other times familiar textiles provide immediate recognition and comfort.
5. Characters of Many Cultures
In my research of Keats, there was much to read regarding the diverse characters found in his work. In the above scene in Jennie's Hat, we see a pew filled with church goers of different races and ethnicities. Even today, more than 50 years after Jennie's Hat was published, I still find this spread refreshing in its subtle celebration of differences.
Keats' character Peter (present in seven of his books) was inspired by a child pictured in Life magazine in 1940. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation describes Peter as bright, imaginative, fun-loving, quiet and thoughtful. That Peter happens to be an African-American boy is simply a reality of the world Keats built. But in the larger popular culture conversation of the time, Peter's impact as a literary hero was enormous. Keats' inclusion and celebration of diverse characters continues to inspire children and adults alike today.
6. Compelling Action
We learn the most about characters when we see them respond to unexpected circumstances. Keats always delivers this. Through his characters' actions, we better understand where they are coming from and where they are going.
In Hi, Cat!, Peter and his friend Archie are doing comedy bits on the corner for their neighborhood friends, when along comes a crazy cat. The feline messes with their act and literally shakes things up. In some of Keats' stories, the action is light hearted and fun, like this. In others, the fate of our storybook friends is more uncertain...
7. A Bit of Danger
My girls were VERY worried about Peter and Archie in Goggles!, a Caldecott Honor Book. The boys discover a pair of old motorcycle goggles and decide to take them back to the stoop for play, when suddenly "big boys" appear.
Most kids are scared of, and intrigued by, the same things, and "big kid" are a little bit of both. They are cool and smooth, but also bigger and stronger. If they want what you have, you can pretty much assume you're about to lose your coveted item.
My daughters held their breath the entire book, until Peter and Archie escaped. Keats had them hooked. He gave them a world they'd never seen, delivered an emotional experience they'd never had, and showed them that kids can conquer fears and challenges. For all of these reasons and more, our house is now full of Ezra Jack Keats fans.
Be sure to catch up on my previous Kidlit Great features, linked below! And if you have a picture book author that you'd like to see featured in a future Kidlit Great post, make a nomination in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!