Ezra Jack Keats Background Information for Teachers and Parents
This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about Ezra Jack Keats. The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Ezra Jack Keats. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.
Ezra Jack Keats is one of the most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators. He has illustrated over eighty-five books and has written and illustrated twenty-four children’s books. He was among the first popular writers and illustrators to feature multi-cultural characters, and his influence on children’s literature today is undeniable.
Ezra Jack Keats was born in 1916 in New York to Polish immigrants. Keats’ father worked long hours as a waiter in a coffeeshop, and the family did not have a lot of money. Keats excelled in art as a young student and won numerous awards. Keats’ mother was very supportive of her son’s talents. His father, however, was more hesitant; he knew that making a living from art was difficult. He hoped that his son would pursue a more lucrative career. Still, he was still supportive and often brought home tubes of paint for young Ezra, under the guise that some diners had paid for their meal in art supplies. After graduating from high school, Keats won scholarships to attend art school but was unable to attend. His father passed away of a heart attack right before graduation and Keats had to work in order to support the family. Still, Keats took art classes and night and developed his passion and talents.
Keats got a job as an illustrator and illustrated comic books, magazine and newspaper articles, and covers. Remind your children that an illustrator is a person who creates pictures to go along with text. Illustrators do not just illustrate books; they can illustrate advertisements, food wrappers, and articles. Keats became interested in writing and illustrating his own work. He collaborated with Pat Cherr to write My Dog is Lost, a story about a boy who loses his dog in New York City. The boy had recently moved from Puerto Rico and does not speak English. In the story, the boy meets multi-cultural kids from all over the city, including Chinatown and Little Italy. Many of Keats’ stories draw from universal childhood experiences, such as getting bullied, having a crush, losing a pet, or getting a new sibling. The multi-cultural characters in his stories draw from those he met while growing up.
One day while reading Life Magazine, Keats found a picture of an African-American boy that inspired him. Keats began drawing several sketches of a character named Peter. Eventually this character starred in seven books, including The Snowy Day, which is about Peter’s adventures in the snow and his child-like wonder. The Snowy Day was awarded the Caldecott Award, given to the illustrator of the most distinguished American children’s book. We recommend watching the Winter movie together upon reading this book. Throughout his career, Keats won several prestigious awards, but he always kept an art award he received in junior high and regarded that as one of his most important achievements.
Keats was a skilled artist and used collages to bring his illustrations to life. He painted with gouache, an opaque watercolor, and added cutouts from patterned paper, stamps or stencils, and even ripped up newsprint to his paintings. The mixed media in his illustrations showcase Keats’ skill as an artist.
Encourage your children to find the similarities and differences in Keats’ books, in the writing and in the illustrations. Inspire them to read several books by the same author to see how characters change and grow or analyze how illustration styles change. This will help keep your children passionate about reading and writing and introduce them to different styles of art.