Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz to Polish Jews Benjamin and Augusta Katz in Eastern New York City on March 11, 1916. He was the youngest of three children growing up very poor in the midst of a difficult economic time in the United States. Keats was a talented artist from an early age and at around 8 years old he was hired to paint a sign, giving his father some glimmer of hope that his son would make something of himself, as he was apprehensive about Keats’ artistic focus. Keats continued to be a successful artist throughout school winning several awards. The day before his high school graduation, he learned that his father had died suddenly of a heart attack in the street. Keats, sadly, had to identify his father’s body and was faced with learning his father’s true feelings about his son’s artistic side. Keats later told a friend: “I found myself staring deep into his secret feelings. 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.”
Now that Keats’ father had passed away, he was unable to attend art school even though he had earned three scholarships to do so. Instead he had to work to support his family in his father’s absence taking a job as a mural painter for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and as a comic book illustrator for the Captain Marvel comic strip. He also took art classes when his schedule allowed, further honing in his craft and passion for art. In 1943 he joined the military and spent his enlistment designing camouflage patterns. It was after experiencing a great deal of anti-Semitism in the military and throughout his life that he decided to legally change his name to Keats. Later, he would travel to Europe and his work would appear in many major publications such as Reader’s Digest and more. Eventually one of his pieces was spotted by an editor for a major publishing house, and Keats was brought on board to illustrate children’s literature. Over the course of a very long and popular career, he illustrated over 85 children’s books and wrote and illustrated 22 of his own. Ezra Jack Keats is an American treasure and has touched the lives of countless children over the years.
Video: Ezra Jack Keats Source: Christina Cucci 8:33 minutes
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