For the past twelve years, I have been intimately acquainted with the children's book The Snowy Day. This short book, published in 1962 and which won the Coldecott Medal in 1963, is the book we share on the very first day of the Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program. My first day as an actor-teacher I led a class of first graders through the story of a boy who goes out into the world, on his own, on a snowy day, and has the kind of adventures only a little kid can have in the snow.
So I was delighted to discover the Akron Art Museum was presenting The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. The family stopped in on our way to Athens, and my wife, like a lot of people, was surprised to learn that Ezra Jack Keats was white. Creating the first modern children's story book to feature an African-American child as its protagonist, you might assume the author to be black.
Keats's birth name, Jacob Erza Katz, might be a clue as to his actual heritage. He was born the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Living in Brooklyn, he was very interested in the beauty of his urban surroundings, and attracted to the other cultures that surrounded him. His first children's book, My Dog Is Lost! (1960) featured a Spanish-speaking boy named Juanito.
He was inspired to create the character of Peter from a photo essay he saw in LIFE Magazine some twenty years earlier, showing a proud and interesting African-American boy, posing in his winter coat. Today the issue-neutral depiction of non-white races is pretty standard. At the time, it raised controversy, which is a pity, but not surprising.
Detail from "Peter's Chair" (1967)
It's one thing to look at EJK's picture books and tell that they are created from collage, something else to see the original artwork itself. Most if not all of them were created 1:1 which, surprised me. Some have special instructions in the margins for the printer, e.g.: No side-lighting. If the images were sidelit, that would create shadows from the many layers of paper (see detail above).
Yes, you can see that children's clothes are cut from patterned cloth, but seeing the actual cloth made me think of the artist cutting several different scraps of cloth from the same bolt of fabric to represent the exact same shirt, numerous times. He would use wallpaper to represent, well, wallpaper (again, see above) but cut and paste the wallpaper over itself to put more of the repeating images, like flowers, into this smaller space.
"After breakfast he called to his friend across the hall,
and they went out together into the deep, deep snow."
- from "The Snowy Day"
A rite of passage for male actor-teacher our school residency program is to perform what we like to call The Sweaty Day, where we pantomime all of Peter's activities while wearing a winter coat, knit hat, scarf and gloves. This photo is from a rehearsal in early 2005 where Peter has decided to call on one of the "big girls" across the hall instead.
The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats continues through June 30.