- On Ezra Jack Keats
Sometimes it is hard to believe that books are by people—people like you and me; sometimes it is hard to conceive that authors and illustrators were children, grew up, experienced the pleasures and pains of any human being.
Having known Ezra as a colleague and friend, I offer some thoughts he shared with me as a preface to these excerpts from his memoirs.
"My Life in Crime" details Ezra's growing-up years in Brooklyn, New York, during the Depression years. He had been drawing since he was four years old, constantly experimenting, even to the point of creating "rare postage stamps."
"Painting" brought to mind a tender tale he related to me:
"I first realized that my drawings meant something when one day I covered our enamel-topped kitchen table with a host of sketches. My mother came in, and I expected her to say, 'What have you been doing?' or 'Get the sponge and wash off that table!' Instead she said, 'Did you do that? Isn't it wonderful?' Rather than washing it off, she covered it with a tablecloth and showed it off periodically to the neighbors and friends who visited her."
Ezra's father, who worked as a waiter at a Greenwich Village beanery, did not give him the same open encouragement; he was painfully aware of ow difficult the life of an artist could be. "Occasionally he would bring home some materials—tube of oil paint or a set of brushes for watercolors—but they all came with a lecture about starving artists," he told me. "Years later after I had grown up, my father suffered a fatal heart attack away from home, and I went to identify him. As part of the procedure, the police asked me to look through his wallet, and I found myself staring deep into his secret feelings. There in his wallet were worn and tattered newspaper clippings about the awards I had won. My silent admirerer and supplier had been torn between dread of my leading a life of hardship and real pride in my work."
I couldn't help but chuckle over "Caldecott." Ezra received the prestigious medal for The Snowy Day in 1963, the year Madeleine L'Engle received the Newbery Award for A Wrinkle in Time. [End Page 56]
Neither Ezra nor Madeleine could manage eating at the banquet affair. Harry Simmons, at Viking Penguin, Inc., recalled how he and a group of other publisher friends ordered a meal for them that evening which they both ate at a card table in a hotel room.
Ezra's own voice follows. [End Page 57]
Lee Bennett Hopkins has edited more than thirty poetry anthologies for children, including Rainbows Are Made: Poems by Carl Sandburg, Voyages: Poems by Walt Whitman and A Song in the Stone: City Poems. He is also the author of three novels and numerous professional articles and books.