It is easy to see the word “courage” in the word “encourage.” Unfortunately, it is often easy to forget the relationship between these words: that to encourage someone is to inspire courage in them whether it is to face challenges or to take creative risks as writers and artists.
Sadly, one of the most ground-breaking children’s book writers of the 20th century grappled with a lack of encouragement early on in his life.
Born in 1916 Ezra Jack Keats, the author of The Snowy Day, a book credited for breaking the color barrier in children’s publishing, began life in an environment that did not embolden his creative talents.
“Ezra grew up in East New York, which was then the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn and was the son of Polish Jewish immigrant parents [Benjamin Katz and Augusta “Gussie” Podgainy],” Dr. Deborah Pope executive director of the Foundation said. “They were very poor and terrified he would become an artist and starve, so they gave him very little to no encouragement.”
Young Ezra, in fact, received mixed messages regarding his artistic abilities from his father who would give him tubes of paint but caution him that he traded them from starving artists for food. It was only after his father passed away that Ezra discovered just how proud he was of him.
“I found myself staring deep into his [my father’s] secret feelings,” Ezra told his the poet Lee Bennett Hopkins during an interview where he talked about identifying his father’s body. “There in his wallet were worn and tattered newspaper clippings of the notices of the awards I had won. My silent admirer and supplier, he had been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship and his real pride in my work.”
While Ezra learned of his father’s true feelings about his talents too late for their relationship, he still found support in other areas of his life.
“The encouragement he got to follow his dream and his passion was from public school teachers and public librarians,” Pope said.
Although Ezra would later become a celebrated writer with a parade being held for him in
Portland, Oregon in 1979, the item that he kept with him all his life was a medal described on the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation’s website as “unimpressive-looking” that he was awarded for
drawing when he graduated from junior high. Further encouragement came in high school when he won a national student contest run by the Scholastic Publishing
Company for one of his oil paintings that depicted hobos warming themselves around a fire.
Ironically, however, Pope said it was in summer school where he met one of his greatest supporters, her father and today world-renown scientist, Martin Pope.
“The friendship that developed between my father and Ezra changed both their lives for the
better,” Pope said. “These two boys could talk to each other about anything…They could talk
to each other without the rivalry or friction that comes from being siblings, but with the comfort that come from being siblings. And this was a lifelong friendship.”
Over the course of his career, Ezra illustrated over 85 books and wrote and illustrated 22 children’s classics. He was the first artist invited to design a set of greeting cards for UNICEF, and he was the first children’s book author to be invited to donate his papers to Harvard University. And when he died from a heart attack in 1985, Martin was with him.
“Ezra died holding my father’s hand,” Pope said. At the time Ezra had already formed his foundation, but Pope explained that it was her father and mother, Lillie Pope, that built it up into what it is today—a non-profit dedicated to preserving the quality of Keats’ books and artworks, promoting children’s literacy and creativity, and maintaining quality and diversity in children’s literature.
“When he did die and the will came into effect, it fell to my father to really form the foundation to create and design the program that would do the good that Ezra wanted,” Pope said. “My father married a very dynamic strong woman, my mother, who was an educator. It fell to my parents to create these programs for the foundation. It really fell to my mother to do the design work.”
One of the programs designed by Pope’s mother is the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competitions, a collaboration between the Department of Education and the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation held in New York City and San Francisco for children from grades 3 – 12 to write
and illustrate their own books on subjects ranging from autobiographies to fantasy stories. A jury of librarians, teachers and artists selects both borough-wide winners and city-wide winners who receive an Ezra Jack Keats medal and cash prizes ($100 for the borough-wide winners and $500 for the city-wide winners). Such accolades, however, are only part of what it is hoped the students take away from this competition.
“It was at public school that Ezra first received recognition for his talent, which encouraged him to pursue his dreams,” Pope said. “Our hope is that this award will inspire these young people to follow their dreams, too.”
Further information about the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition is available on the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation’s website http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/ •