The Schmooze

The Background Man

The best writers of children’s books appeal to readers of all ages. Sometimes this appeal comes from the same sources, sometimes from different aspects of the book. At their best, both Ezra Jack Keats (born Jacob Katz) and the show in his honor at the Jewish Museum, do both. Children will gravitate towards his narratives, adults will find his biographical context more compelling, while all visitors can enjoy the bright, but eclectic palette and the vividness of his painted scenes.

Best known for “The Snowy Day” (1962), Keats grew up poor in Brooklyn in a milieu so Jewish that Claudia Nahson, the curator, felt it worthwhile to note that he fondly remembered falling asleep to his father reading the Forward’s legendary advice column, The Bintel Brief, out loud. But though his own background was quintessentially Jewish, his work is stamped more distinctively by the urban surroundings that were his childhood context.

Because “The Snowy Day” was one of the first children’s books to feature an African-American child as a protagonist, Keats was seen as a civil rights trailblazer, but it seems as though he was more of a realist than an activist — portraying life as he had seen it, growing up in New York City. So, though genealogies can be traced to Jewish children’s book writers like Simms Taback, more importantly he made a place for books like Faith Ringgold’s “Tar Beach” — like “The Snowy Day” a Caldecott Award winner — whose 1991 portrayal of her dreaming on her family’s Harlem rooftop explores a contemporary urban world that looks both at, and beyond, the constraints of New York city life.

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The Background Man

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