The Impact of Ezra Jack Keats and the Impact of Awards

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We’re about to try something new at the library and bring a little more attention to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards with some special events.  These are prestigious awards especially for African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults.

There has been some debate about whether it is necessary to have awards that focus on a specific ethnic group.  It might seem unfair to have awards that not everyone is eligible to win.

As we consider those issues, I think it is helpful to look at the history of children’s book publishing and children’s book awards.  What prompted the creation of the Coretta Scott King Awards?  What books were being published before and after the awards were established?

Today, since the weather just started to get snowy, I’m going to share the article Recognizing the Impact of Ezra Jack Keats by Rocco Staino that recently appeared in American Libraries Magazine.  This is a glimpse of the period before the CSK Awards, 50 years ago.

The Snowy Day

Staino’s statement that Keats was “the first author/illustrator to depict an African-American protagonist in a full-color picture book” is not quite as outrageous as it might first appear, if you keep the qualifier “full-color” in mind.  The older, and still well-loved, Goodnight Moon alternates full color spreads with black and white ones.  A few years after The Snowy Day earned Keats the Caldecott Medal, Sam, Bangs & Moonshine won the same award with illustrations in black, white, and  brown.  Full color picture books became more common as picture book technology progressed.

Henrietta M. Smith wrote an interesting background piece on African American Children’s Books in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators.  In her descriptions on children’s books with African American characters and books by Black authors from the 1930s through the 1970s, I can’t find a mention of any picture books predating The Snowy Day that weren’t marred by stereotypes (though she mentions books of other types, such as poetry collections, primers, nonfiction, and children’s novels).  Librarians such as Augusta Baker actively encouraged building collections of books with appealing illustrations of Black children.  Evidently, finding good titles for the picture book section was particularly difficult.

Staino quotes another author, Anita Silvery, observing that “Because a wide range of libraries bought copies, often The Snowy Day was the only title that children saw for years to feature a child of color.”  The character Peter was important to children of color (African American or not) who rarely saw themselves mirrored in picture books.  Caucasian kids like me, growing up in the snowy Midwest, could also see ourselves in the little boy doing all the things small children do in the snow.  The only thing that was unfamiliar to me was that Peter “called to his friend from across the hall,” and as a child I had not yet lived in an apartment.

Living in an apartment would have been familiar to Ezra Jack Keats, who was born in Brooklyn.  As a child I had just sort of assumed he was Black, and it was only as a librarian that I learned he came from a family of Jewish immigrants from Poland.  In a way, his own background inspired him to create stories like The Snowy Day, or an earlier story with a Spanish-speaking character, My Dog is Lost!  The Jewish Museum, hosting the exhibit The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, provides the following description on its website:

Keats’s experience of antisemitism and poverty in his youth gave him a lifelong sympathy for others who suffered prejudice and want. “If,” he once remarked, “we all could really see (‘see’ as perceive, understand, discover) each other exactly as the other is, this would be a different world.”

When The Snowy Day was first published, African American writers and artists were not finding very many opportunities to get published as children’s book authors and illustrators.  In 1969 two school librarians, concerned that no African Americans had yet won the Newbery or Caldecott awards, decided to create a new award that would highlight their work.  The new Coretta Scott King Award helped change children’s book publishing, making more books by and about African Americans available to children.

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