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Multicultural Children’s Books by Ezra Jack Keats

In this post I will highlight the work of one of my favorite children’s authors, Ezra Jack Keats.  In particular, I will focus on a six-book series of multicultural children’s books by Keats that features a single character—a boy named Peter—and that includes two of Keats’s most celebrated books, The Snowy Daymulticultural children's books and Whistle for Williemulticultural children's books.  All six of these multicultural children’s books are appropriate for 3-to-5-year-olds.
multicultural children's booksmulticultural children's books
Title: The Snowy Daymulticultural children's books
Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Age Category: 3 to 5 years
Genre: Picture Books

Life of Ezra Jack Keats: Multicultural Children’s Books Author

The following brief account of Keats’s life and career is excerpted from the website for the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation:

“Ezra Jack Keats was born on March 11, 1916, to impoverished Polish immigrants of Jewish descent in East New York, which was then the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, New York. He was the third child of Benjamin Katz and Augusta Podgainy, and was then known as Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz.”

From early on it was evident that Keats was gifted as an artist.  He won several awards for his art in junior high and high school, including a national contest run by the Scholastic Publishing Company.

“Keats entered the service of the United States Army on April 13, 1943…After World War II, he returned to New York… Two years after the war, Jack, in reaction to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the time, legally changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. It was Ezra’s memory of being a target of discrimination that provided the basis for his sympathy and understanding for those who suffered similar hardships.”

multicultural children's booksmulticultural children's booksTitle: Whistle for Willie
Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Age Category: 3 to 5 years
Genre: Picture Books

After illustrating several children’s books and co-authoring one of his own (My Dog Is Lostmulticultural children's books), Keats began work on a multicultural children’s book featuring a character named Peter, inspired by a photo clipping from Life Magazine in 1940.  Keats described the process of creating the book as follows:

“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 Daymulticultural children's books, received the prestigious Caldecott Award 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!multicultural children's books…”

multicultural children's booksmulticultural children's books
Title: Peter’s Chairmulticultural children's books
Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Age Category: 3 to 5 years
Genre: Picture Books

“By the time of [his] death following a heart attack in 1983, Keats had illustrated over eighty-five books for children, and written and illustrated twenty-four children’s classics…”

“Long before multicultural characters and themes were fashionable, Ezra Jack Keats crossed social boundaries by being the first American picture-book maker to give the black child a central place in children’s literature.”

Multicultural Children’s Books: Subjective Appeal

The subjective appeal of these multicultural children’s books consists in several factors.  First, the themes of the books connect with the experience of children in the 3-to-5-years age category.  For example, The Snowy Daymulticultural children's books captures a child’s delight at a fresh snowfall.  Peter dons his adorable snowsuit with a peaked hat, makes a snowman and snow angels, and slides down a big snowy hill.  Keats masterfully captures Peter’s worry that the snow will be gone the next day—Peter dreams that it all melts—and his joy when he wakes up to find that more snow has fallen! Moreover, the pace and activity of the book focus the reader on the present, just as a child’s perspective is anchored not so much in the past and future (as the perspective of most adults is…) but in the present.

multicultural children's books

Title: A Letter to Amy

Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Age Category: 3 to 5 years
Genre: Picture Books

Second, Keats’s mixed-media illustrations are beautiful and interesting.  The first four books of the series reflect a balance between collage and vivid gouache—an opaque watercolor paint.  For example, in Peter’s Chairmulticultural children's books the final scene shows Peter and his dad painting Peter’s old chair pink for his new baby sister.  Under the chair and paint Keats used actual newspaper clippings as the drop sheet, and pink gouache to show the footprints of Peter’s dog Willie, who has stepped in the paint and is tracking it through the house!  The final two multicultural children’s books in the series (Hi, Cat!multicultural children's books and Pet Show!multicultural children's books) show a shift toward fewer collage elements and more paint, applied in a satisfyingly free style.  Keats’s art seems perfectly suited for the urban settings of his kids’ books.
multicultural children's booksmulticultural children's books
Title: Hi, Cat!multicultural children's books
Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Age Category: 3 to 5 years
Genre: Picture Books

Finally, the stories and illustrations in these multicultural children’s books are very funny at times.  For example, in Hi, Cat!multicultural children's books Archie has been eating a mint-green ice-cream cone and has some of the ice-cream on his face.  Then Peter’s dog Willie comes and licks his face clean! (I have wonderful childhood memories of this very illustration…)  Or, in The Snowy Daymulticultural children's books Peter innocently uses a stick to knock snow off a tree.  The unexpected result: snow on the head!

Multicultural Children’s Books: Developmental Value

Keats’s kids’ books are developmentally valuable for several reasons.  First, the books offer a look at healthy inner-city life, in all its multicultural color, which is sadly rare for children’s books.  Virtually every character in the books is African-American or Latino, and all are part of the same functional community.

multicultural children's booksmulticultural children's books
Title: Pet Show!multicultural children's books

Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Age Category: 3 to 5 years
Genre: Picture Books

Second, the social values of family, friendship, and community are beautifully exemplified.  For example, in Peter’s Chairmulticultural children's books when Peter feels displaced by his new baby sister—she has claimed all his baby furniture except his chair!—and he runs away (just outside the kitchen window…), his parents playfully and lovingly woo him home.

Third, the stories and illustrations in these multicultural children’s books are creatively excellent, and thus they contribute helpfully to a child’s developing literary and aesthetic taste.  Finally, the language in the books is simple enough that they will be helpful for children learning to read on their own.

In sum, I wholeheartedly recommend these six picture books by Ezra Jack Keats, and encourage you to find them in your local library, or to support our work by purchasing them through the links in this post.  Additional recommendations for multicultural children’s books may be found here.

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3 Comments

  1. […] eight years old. In fact, recently when I was re-reading Hi, Cat! in preparation for our article  “Multicultural Children’s Books: Ezra Jack Keats – Author Spotlight”, the images of mint green ice cream on Archie’s dark face, and of Peter’s dog Willie licking […]

  2. […] that reminds me of Ezra Jack Keats’s beautifully illustrated children’s books (see my article, “Multicultural Children’s Books: Author Spotlight on Ezra Jack Keats”).  The textured look of Carle’s illustrations makes toddlers want to touch […]

  3. […] the interview, I encourage you to check out The Brown Bookshelf, as well as the many excellent multicultural children’s books resources he mentions in the interview. And why not buy one of his books while you’re at […]

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