Even before Virginia McGee Butler’s 2023 biography of Ezra Jack Keats, most adults and children today undoubtedly knew his work intimately. Keats, one of the most beloved children’s book illustrators of the twentieth century, illustrated over one hundred picture books, including The Snowy Day, the renowned story of an African American boy enjoying a fresh snowfall, and a groundbreaking book in the industry’s journey toward broader representation. But Butler, an early childhood educator, is eager to teach, not simply reiterate what her readers already know. In her 2023 biography, Becoming Ezra Jack Keats, Butler challenges assumptions about Keats—indeed about all picture book authors—a mission for which Keats, who was deeply invested in challenging stereotypes, would have offered his hearty approval.
Butler’s work is not unique in its goals. Indeed, most biographies, particularly those of beloved cultural figures, strive to create compelling narratives by delivering an engaging balance of endearing stories and surprising, even shocking, details. But biographers of children’s picture book authors have a particular advantage. Almost any detail they recount about the personal lives of their subjects, however tame, becomes instantly more compelling when contrasted with the cultural expectations of a children’s author—a dowdy, morally-upright, Mother Goose figure. For instance, both biographers of twentieth-century children’s author Margaret Wise Brown relished in introducing readers to a vivacious, fashionable, unmarried Brown who, despite writing comforting tales of fuzzy forest creatures, had a penchant for rabbit hunting and wearing furs.1
The most surprising details about Keats in Butler’s work come in the descriptions of his young adult years. While Butler’s deep admiration for Keats is palpable, she exposes Keats’s most personal foibles—most notably, his unsuccessful romantic relationships and his addiction to barbiturates. Seconal, liberally prescribed by physicians as a sleeping aid, became a quick, albeit problematic, coping mechanism for Keats’s many professional and financial setbacks. In a particularly low period early in his career, which Keats referred to as “a big sleep,” he was frequently evicted from apartments, worked disagreeable jobs, and dodged suspicions about his substance use. (106) Butler’s inclusion of these details, and anecdotes about his utilization of psychotherapy, does much to humanize Keats and normalize mental health struggles.
Additionally, Keats’s childlessness may come as a surprise to some readers who conflate skill in children’s books with the personal desire for or experience in parenthood. Indeed, the stereotype of a jolly grandparent-like figure patiently tending to a gaggle of children persists, despite the cadre of talented children’s authors and illustrators who never had children, including Maurice Sendak, Tomie dePaola, Theodore Geisel, and Margaret Wise Brown, who raised eyebrows in a 1947 interview when she quipped, “I don’t especially like children […] I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.”2 For a children’s book author, particularly a woman, to acknowledge that they wish to remain child-free is still branded as sacrilege.
The most surprising details about Keats in Butler’s work come in the descriptions of his young adult years. While Butler’s deep admiration for Keats is palpable, she exposes Keats’s most personal foibles—most notably, his unsuccessful romantic relationships and his addiction to barbiturates.
To spend too much time interrogating Keats’s childlessness would risk reinforcing outmoded stereotypes. But it is tempting to wonder how much his mother’s advice to avoid marriage and children in favor of love affairs impacted a young Keats—advice from a woman who likely wished to remain childless herself, but due to cultural norms, not to mention lack of reliable birth control, did not have access to that choice. (105) Butler devotes much of the early chapters to detailing the emotional ambivalence that characterized the relationship between Keats and his mother. Gussie Katz fluctuated between passive aggressive tirades in which she soused Keats in guilt for her pregnancy-induced heart problems and tender moments when she woke Keats at dawn on days the sunrise was particularly dazzling, feeding his love for visual poetry. Butler’s curation of these details elicits as much sympathy for a young Keats as for his mother, who wished she was a man “so she could sail away in a boat.” (21) While often a taboo topic in American culture, Butler gives a voice to parental ambivalence.
Butler also does much to extend her readers’ definitions of parenthood. Butler’s descriptions of Keats’s advocacy work, including his establishment of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and his criticisms of the American education system’s reliance on rote memorization, highlight his dedication to children’s causes. He appeared more than once on the television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood—arguably the only program in America’s history to remain closely aligned with the emotional and developmental needs of young children. And as Butler points out, Keats believed that making work for children was no less important than parenting work itself—a philosophy that Butler, an educator herself, undoubtedly subscribes to. Indeed, Keats believed that “the children in his books had made him a parent as they grew” and for them, he created worlds that reflected not the reality of childhood, but his dreams for what it should be. (163)
While a thorough examination of Keats’s philosophies and social critiques is admittedly outside the scope of Butler’s biography, she does give readers a taste of the social impact of his work with a case study, the 1962 picture book The Snowy Day. Butler awards the most important work of Keats’s career with two chapters, but she still only manages to skim the surface of the book’s profound historical and social impact. While it is admittedly unfair to criticize a biography for its lack of specificity about particular works, these two chapters feel somewhat disconnected from the rest of the book—narrated mostly through quotations from book reviews and correspondence, with much less of Butler’s own voice weaving the narrative together for readers as she does so fluidly in other chapters. So let us for a moment take on some of that analysis and narrative knit work here.
The Snowy Day was a landmark book—one of the very first times an African American child appeared in a picture book in a non-stereotyped way. As Dr. Nancy Larrick pointed out in her 1965 article “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” African American children appeared in only 6.7 percent of books at that time, and were often relegated to the background or used to illustrate historical folktales; less than 1 percent of books depicted contemporary African American characters.3 And horrible caricatures of African Americans had persisted and proliferated in print culture for decades, like Helen Bannerman’s 1899 illustrations for Little Black Sambo. “There is no need,” asserts Larrick, “to elaborate upon the damage—much of it irreparable—to the Negro child’s personality.”4 The cultural problem that Keats aimed his work towards was profound. But Butler argues that Keats’s experiences growing up amongst cultural, religious, and socioeconomic diversity in Brooklyn, had fostered a lifelong desire to expand representation in picture books.
Peter, the African American child in the story, was sensitively drawn, as if in dedication, from a series of reference photographs Keats clipped out of a 1940 Life magazine and saved for years. Particularly moving was Keats’s reply, “well, I’m certainly happy for the little boy in the book,” when asked for a response on his Caldecott win. (123) While the public warmly received Keats’s depictions of Peter, Dr. Larrick had no love for Keats’s illustration of Peter’s mother who she called “a huge figure in a gaudy yellow plaid dress, albeit without a red bandana.” (131) Keats’s epistolary response, while unduly defensive and reactive at times, reveals the importance of issues of class for Keats. He depicted Peter’s mother as full-figured, Keats retorted, in response to the “fashionably thin” mothers in most picture books who looked nothing like the mothers he saw growing up in tenements. (131) Regardless of where one falls on the issue of Peter’s mother, it is clear that a heartfelt desire to banish stereotypes was at the forefront for Keats—the son of Polish immigrants who changed his name from Katz to Keats to ward off anti-semitism. “All people want,” affirmed Keats, “is the opportunity to be people.” (131)
The cultural problem that Keats aimed his work towards was profound. But Butler argues that Keats’s experiences growing up amongst cultural, religious, and socioeconomic diversity in Brooklyn, had fostered a lifelong desire to expand representation in picture books.
Butler’s praise for Keats and his contributions to the field of African American children’s literature is well-earned, but we also need broader narratives. In a letter to the editor from 1965 that Butler highlights, author Ellen Tarry, reminds the public that they bear some responsibility for the lack of diversity in picture books—by failing to buy them. Tarry knew all too well the challenge of gaining broad support. The Snowy Day is often billed as the first picture book to feature a Black child, but this is not true. Tarry herself had published the 1942 picture book Hezekiah Horton about a young African American boy obsessed with automobiles. And despite the progress that The Snowy Day ushered in, it would be over fourteen years after Keats’s Caldecott win before an African American would win the same award—Leo Dillon in 1976. Readers of Becoming Ezra Jack Keats should not only to enjoy Butler’s loving portrait of Keats but elevate African American authors and illustrators with just as much exuberance. If he were still with us, Keats would undoubtedly join this effort.