Benjamin Katz and Augusta Podgainy were born in Warsaw, Poland. However, they did not meet until they had both emigrated to the United States. Continuing the Polish custom, their wedding was arranged by a matchmaker. After the marriage, the two settled in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, New York. In a two-family house at no. 438 Vermont Street, their third child, Jacob Ezra Katz was born on March 11, 1916.
At an early age, Jacob, known later to the world as Ezra Jack Keats, became interested in art. His mother encouraged Keats' talent, but his father seemed only to criticize Keats' ability. Working at Pete's Coffee Shop in Greenwich Village, Benjamin Katz knew how hard earning a living could be. He felt that his son could never really be successful as an artist. However, his father did purchase tubes of paint for Keats under the pretense of having traded bowls of soup to starving artists. "If you don't think artists starve, well, let me tell you. One man came in the other day and swapped me a tube of paint for a bowl of soup."
Keats did win the approval of his father when he was paid twenty-five cents for painting an advertisement for a local store at the age of eight. Finally, Benjamin thought his son might be able to earn a living with his art, as a sign painter.
When Benjamin Katz died on January 1935, Keats, on the day before his high school graduation, had to identify his father's body. For the first time he learned that his father had been proud of his work. In his Caldecott Medal speech in 1963, Keats shared the experience. "I found myself staring deep into his secret feelings. There in his wallet were worn and tattered newpaper clippings of the notices of the awards I had won. My silent admirer and supplier, he had been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship and his real pride in my work."
Although Keats won three scholarships to art school, he was unable to attend. He worked to support his family by day and took art classes at night when he could. In 1937, he secured a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) working as a mural painter. After three years time, Keats moved on to work as a comic book illustrator. Then in 1942, Keats began work on the staff of Fawcett Publications illustrating backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strip.
On April 13, 1943, Keats entered the service of the United States Air Corp. Taking advantage of his skill as an artist, the army trained him to design camouflage patterns. Keats was given an honorary discharge in 1945, and he returned to New York. Keats suffered a period of health problems and melancholy after his return home.
Two years after WWII Jacob Ezra Katz legally changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. This was most certainly a reaction to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the time.
In 1954, Jubilant for Sure by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing was published. The book set in the mountains of Kentucky was the first book Keats illustrated for children. Keats, in an unpublished autobiography, stated: "I didn't even ask to get into children's books." In the eleven years that followed, Keats illustrated fifty-four books.
My Dog is Lost, co-authored by Pat Cherr, was published in 1960 and was Keats' first attempt at authoring a children's book. The main character is a Puerto Rican boy named Juanito who has lost his dog in New York and meets children from different sections of New York such as Chinatown and Little Italy. Keats was innovative in his use of minority children as central characters.
In the two years that followed, Keats worked on a book featuring a little boy named Peter. Peter was inspired by an article Keats had clipped from Life magazine in 1940. "Then began an experience that turned my life around--working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kids--except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I'd begun to illustrate children's books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book."
The book featuring Peter, The Snowy Day, received the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book for children in 1963. Peter appears in six more books growing from a small boy in The Snowy Day to adolescence in Pet Show.
Keats authored and/or illustrated more than 85 books for children. In 1980, he was awarded the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for outstanding contributions in the field of children's literature.
On May 6, 1983, Ezra Jack Keats died from a heart attack.
Ezra Jack Keats: A Biography with Illustrations by Dean Engel and Florence Freedman; Silver Moon Press, 1995.
Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-Book Maker by Brian Alderson; Pelican Publishing Company, 1994.
Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults: A Selection of Sketches from Something about the Author edited by Laurie Collier and Joyce Nakamura; Gale Research, 1993.