One hundred years ago today, a baby was born with a number of strikes against him.
• He was premature and spent his first days in an incubator.
• His parents were immigrant Jews who had fled Poland in the time of the pogroms.
• Poverty pervaded his neighborhood even before the Great Depression came as he began his teenage years.
• Poor health began early and would dog his childhood.
Babies are hard to predict. This one came with a gift and was given a prophetic name. They named him Ezra which means helper. He began to draw on the linoleum floor with his crayons while he was still a toddler.
A blog is not nearly long enough to trace the struggles or the opportunities that came his way, but two were particularly significant. In junior high, he found a lifelong friend with the nickname of “Itz,” and he discovered the library with an abundance of art books that he could use to teach himself to paint.
Skipping much trouble and triumph, we come to the publication of his book The Snowy Day in 1962. This first full color picture book to feature a black child in a non-stereotypical fashion won the Caldecott Medal and the hearts of children. Ezra followed with many other books portraying the diversity he saw out his Brooklyn window.
His legacy has continued after his death in 1983 with the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, administered by his old friend Itz, now known as Martin Pope, and the Pope family. One of its major activities continues to support diversity in children’s literature. The annual presentation of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer and New Illustrator Awards at the Fay B. Kaigler Book Festival will be on April 7. The celebration will honor promising new writers and illustrators who share his vision of diversity, family, and childhood.
Ezra Jack Keats, a helper indeed, opened our own windows to a diverse world. Who would have dreamed in 1916 what a difference the life of that premature baby would make? Happy 100th birthday, Ezra!