For Snowy Day creator, cities teem with color and life

A year before Maurice Sendak revealed where the wild things are, another Jewish children’s book author created something even wilder: young Peter, the first African-American protagonist in a mainstream children’s book.

That pioneering author-illustrator was Ezra Jack Keats, whose 1962 masterpiece, “The Snowy Day,” became a favorite for generations of young readers.

Telling the story of an African-American boy’s adventures when all of New York lay blanketed in fresh snow, the book features colorful cityscapes portraying urban life with dazzling, dignified beauty.

“Then he walked home.” Final illustration for “Louie,” 1975. image/© ezra jack keats foundation

Now Keats (1916-1983) gets his due with an exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” is on display through Feb. 24, 2013. Gallery tours and hands-on educational art projects are part of the experience.

Visitors will see more than 80 original Keats works, from early sketches to final paintings from his best-known books, including “Louie,” “The Trip,” “Apt. 3” and the Caldecott Award–winning “The Snowy Day,” all of which featured minorities as lead characters.

Back in the early days of the civil rights movement, that just wasn’t done.

“There were certainly seeds coming from African-American writers as a precursor to Keats,” says Colleen Stockmann, the museum’s assistant curator. “It’s interesting that it happened with a white author first.”

White, yes, but Keats, who grew up coping with poverty and anti-Semitism, converted his negative childhood experiences into empathy for the urban poor. “He gave voice to underrepresented populations,” added Janine Okmin, the museum’s acting director of education.

A native of Depression-era Brooklyn who was born Jacob Ezra Katz, the artist grew up poor, the lonely son of two emotionally distant parents. Early on, he showed a talent for drawing.

Rather than flee the grit and decay of the metropolis, Keats embraced it, writing, “I love city life. All the beauty that other people see in country life, I find taking walks and seeing the multitudes of people. … I was a city kid. I wouldn’t think of setting [my stories] anywhere I didn’t know.”

“Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow.” Final illustration for “The Snowy Day,” 1962. image/© ezra jack keats foundation

He worked for a time as an inker and colorist for comic books before finding work as an illustrator of children’s books by other authors. By the time “The Snowy Day” was published, he had fully come into his own. All told, he wrote and illustrated 22 books.

Claudia Nahson, curator of New York’s Jewish Museum, which created the exhibition last year, compares Keats to the American cityscape painter Edward Hopper. While Hopper portrayed washed-up denizens of all-night diners, Keats depicted children loose in an urban wonderland.

Using collage, oils and a technique called paper marbling (which results in gorgeous swirls of color), Keats used every tool in the kit to enhance the magic of the city.

“You see his painterly skills and how they become more experimental,” Stockmann says of the works on display. “He was adept enough to experiment successfully. The same with collage, which was not something that had necessarily been used in children’s literature before.”

Though influenced by the East European Yiddish background of his parents, Keats explored spiritual paths as an adult. He often visited Japan, where he was universally lionized, and he made one trip to Israel.

His 1966 book “God is in the Mountain” featured passages from texts of several religious traditions, including Judaism, each magnificently illustrated. An illustrated version of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story never made it to publication.

“On his way to meet Peter, Archie saw someone new on the block.” Final illustration for “Hi, Cat!,” 1970. image/© ezra jack keats foundation

But his most enduring characters are Peter, who appears in “The Snowy Day” and its sequels, and Louie, who had a book series of his own.

Along with the art on the walls, the museum will host several hands-on, family-friendly activities, including an opportunity to experiment with collage, Keats style. In addition, the annual Ezra Jack Keats bookmaking competition comes to the West Coast for the first time, teaming up with the San Francisco Unified School District.

The competition promotes the art of bookmaking in the classroom, with K-12 students invited to design, write and create their own books. Winning books will be showcased and receive prizes.

By the time he died in 1983, Keats had become one of the world’s most honored illustrators. Several of his books had been made into films, one into a musical.

As for his groundbreaking decision to make Peter an African-American child, Keats wrote in an unpublished autobiography, “When I did my first book about a black kid I wanted black kids and white kids to know that he’s there.”

He succeeded so well, it doesn’t seem groundbreaking anymore.

“The impact is best indicated by the perspective of children today,” Okmin said. “If you show the character Peter to a school group today, I don’t think anyone is going to notice the color of his skin, because Keats paved the way. The fact that it’s almost nothing speaks of Keats’ impact.”

“The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” through Feb. 24, 2013 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. (415) 655-7800. Bookmaking competition information: www.thecjm.org/education/schools-and-teachers

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.