Happy Birthday, EJK!

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Since my blogging day falls on what would have been his 103rd birthday, an Ezra Jack Keats story seems to be a must. For much of his life the possibility that he would become a starving artist as his father feared seemed to have been about fifty/fifty. But when he was in his mid-thirties, there came a major turning point in an uncanny one-thing-led-to-another kind of way. 

For some time, Ezra had painted book jackets for adult books and magazine illustrations on an unreliable schedule. Something about a new assignment to paint a book jacket for V. Sackville West’sThe Easter Party excited him. With his only light the one above his drawing table, he began work late in the day. No phone calls, no interruptions bothered him as he applied wash after wash until there appeared before him tall green trees above a violet pink sky. When he finally looked up from his painting, he saw dawn breaking over the city.

After The Easter Party was published in 1953, children’s book editor Elizabeth Riley, who was looking for an illustrator for Step to the Music by Phyllis Whitney, spotted the jacket cover in the Doubleday Book Store window. She turned into the book store to find the name of the artist, and Ezra got a call to see if he was willing to illustrate a juvenile book with a similar mood. 

Ezra laid out the new book much like West jacket. The Easter Party shows a man and his dog looking down on a scene of a country estate framed by trees in full leaf on either side. Step to the Music pictures a couple observing a ship sailing down the river, also framed by trees but bare of their foliage. Similar wash tones of color create both. 

Ms. Riley liked the book cover for Step to the Music and asked Ezra if he would be interested in illustrating a children’s book set in the Smoky Mountains. That book, Jubilant for Sure, would be selected as one of the fifty best illustrated books of the year. Ezra had made a turn into the world of children’s books. During the next ten years, Ezra would illustrate more than fifty books for other authors, little knowing that a reminiscence on a snowy day would give him yet another turning point on his journey and assure that he would never be a starving artist.