Josh Perelman swears it is just happenstance that the newest exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History, “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” is opening in the heat of a Philadelphia summer. The chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections, impeccably dressed in a pinstripe suit and tie even on a sweltering midsummer day, laughingly explains that “we thought it would be a great exhibition as we enter the school year.”
The family-friendly show focuses not only on The Snowy Day, a slight, spare and utterly enchanting book that almost singlehandedly ushered in an era of greater diversity in children’s literature, but on Keats’ other books and artistic endeavors he pursued during his lifetime.
Keats was born Ezra Jack Katz in 1916 to immigrant parents in New York. He displayed a talent for painting as early as age 8, when he was hired to paint signs for a local store in his East New York neighborhood. By the time of his death in 1983, he had illustrated over 80 books and written another 22, including the six-book series that follows Peter, the red snowsuit-clad protagonist of The Snowy Day, from childhood all the way up to the verge of adolescence in Pet Show!
What is taken for granted today is that when The Snowy Day first came out in 1962, there were virtually no children’s books with African-American protagonists. Up to that point, if there were people of color in a children’s book, they were either relegated to the background or used to reinforce negative stereotypes.
Perelman says that, when designing the exhibition, “we wanted it to look and feel very whimsical, very soft, homey and playful. We thought is should be comfortable for families with children and create a nice dialogue between the art and the walls.” The 80 pieces on display, from the original works he produced while working for the Works Progress Administration to the dreamily collaged melding of European- and Asian-styled influences in his book illustrations, seem right at home in such an environment.
The exhibit has warmly painted walls that have been embellished with fully realized images of streetscapes and characters from Keats’ oeuvre and a cozily designed reading nook festooned with comfy chairs and a wide selection of children’s books by Keats and other authors, like his contemporary, Jerry Pinkney.
Pinkney, the 73-year-old Germantown native who is the subject of his own retrospective, “Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until Sept. 22, had his first children’s book illustrations, for The Adventures of Spider, published in 1964, two years after Keats’ Caldecott Medal-winning The Snowy Day. As a contemporary of Keats and as an African-American, he brings a unique perspective to Keats’ legacy.
Pinkney only met Keats in person once, but, he says, “with art, oftentimes you seem to get to know the artist better by his work, so in a sense, I knew him very well.” Pinkney vividly recounts the difficulty he and his wife, the children’s author Gloria Pinkney, encountered trying to find African-American-themed children’s literature for their own children in the 1960s. “For my wife and me, there was a constant search for books where our children could see themselves reflected in the images.”
He says that Keats helped usher in a new era in publishing, one that could not have been achieved by an African-American. “There is no question that at that time, it would have been very difficult for a person of color to produce a book where the central character was a person of color.” Pinkney emphasizes that the importance of Keats’ continued output of books with minority characters cannot be underestimated. “Ezra opened the genre up, not only with A Snowy Day, but he did it later with The Legend of John Henry. What most people don’t realize is that, up until that time, the way that the legend of John Henry was interpreted outside of the African-American community was pretty stereotyped.”
There is no doubt that Keats is eminently deserving of an exhibition honoring his contributions to literature. But beyond his Jewish identity, which he obscured by Anglicizing his name in 1947 to avoid anti-Semitism, why did the National Museum of American Jewish History choose to follow up its most recent exhibition, “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges” with a show devoted to someone who never published any work of Jewish content?
Perelman explains that the exhibition is part of the museum’s exploration of foundational periods in America. “ ‘To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom’ addressed the founding of our nation; ‘Swastika and Jim Crow’ occurred during World War II and just before the Civil Rights period. The Snowy Day came out during the Civil Rights period.” He goes on to say that the museum has dedicated itself to telling stories like Keats’. “It is an archetype of the American Dream — he had a dream of being an artist.” To Perelman, Keats’ books “convey a very Jewish sensibility of trying to fit in in America, but in an unexpected way.”
To James Stiles, Keats’ explorations of how to deal with and overcome childhood “otherness” is one of the reasons his books are still so popular, 30 years after his last work. “Keats shared the stories of outsiders trying to fit in with the world around them — children really identify with that,” he explains.
Stiles, the president of the Children’s Literature Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English, shares Perelman’s belief that much of what Keats wrote and illustrated was created through the prism of his own experience growing up during the Great Depression. It is this quality of reflection, he says, that imbues his works with a power that belies their brevity. “He was observing economic hardship and times of struggle, but without being scary and oppressive. He showed that the children in these books can deal with tough issues, but in a way that is not terrifying to them.”
Stiles says that another reason that Keats’ books continue to be bedtime favorites is that they are just specific enough to allow for young minds to provide their own interpretations. “He provides just enough definition to give his creations a sense of character development, but it still allows you to see yourself in the story — too much detail would separate you. Young teachers and kids think that the more detail the better, but the exact opposite can be true as well: If you have a bedtime story, you want the child to go off into a world of imagination, and sometimes, having a more dreamlike quality to the art helps get you there.”
Keats enjoyed decades of success, so a museum exhibition dedicated to his work would not have come as a surprise to him, but Jerry Pinkney, for one, isn’t sure that the late author would enjoy being the focus of so much attention and accolades just for doing what he believed in and loved. “I don’t think he saw himself as a particularly courageous man who was breaking down barriers. I think he was someone who was living a life of equality in terms of who his friends were and the people who were important to him — especially children.”