The holiday season has kept me in a whirlwind but I did manage to take the day off last Tuesday to visit two galleries in San Francisco. The first one was the Contemporary Jewish Museum showcasing Ezra Jack Keats’ artwork.
His books extend back to my childhood when Peter’s Chair and Whistle for Willie was my introduction to an African-American boy named Peter.
Keats is a pioneer in the children’s book arena in which Snowy Day was the very first children’s book portraying an African-American boy as a protagonist in color; it was even published at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, which was a miracle. Keats’ art resonates within his soul as he was a poor Jewish kid who grew up in east Brooklyn, the poorest part of the neighborhood. He sees beauty even in the dilapidated tenement buildings and streets with overflowing garbage cans. Most of all, he breaks the mode for future stories for children where their skin color is validated and not stereotyped.
On viewing Keats’ artwork in person, I was struck by how simple they are but their simplicity speaks in a way that moves my heart. Ezra Jack Keats has become one of my heroes in illustration.