Ezra Jack Keats’ classic children’s book, “The Snowy Day,” was groundbreaking when it was published in 1962.
Beautifully written and illustrated, it was the first full-color picture book with a black child at the heart of the story.
Keats’ lush illustrations, which evoke the magic of winter, are the subject of an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through Feb. 24.
“The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” features more than 80 works, from book “dummies” to paintings and collages. Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, it is the first major U.S. exhibition to pay tribute to the beloved author and illustrator.
“With the little boy in the red hood, Keats paved the way for multiracial representation in American children’s literature,” says Claudia Nahson, a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York. “The dilapidated urban settings of his stories are also pioneering — picture books had rarely featured those gritty landscapes before.”
The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Snowy Day,” which won the Caldecott Medal in 1963. Keats, who died in 1983, illustrated more than 80 books during his life — 22 of which he also wrote.
In a wintry scene from “The Snowy Day,” Keats used a piece of pink paper and painted over it with white paint. Bits of pink shine through here and there, giving the snowy drifts more depth and luminosity than plain white paint or paper ever could.
The boy, named Peter, looks curiously at his footprints. One can almost feel the soft crunch of the snow as he stands there in his red snowsuit.
The exhibition also features paintings Keats made as a teenager, including one of Brooklyn rooftops. Another, which shows a candy shop at night, is evocative of the paintings of Edward Hopper, an artist Keats admired.
Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn in 1916, but later changed his name. His parents were poor, Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He suffered from both poverty and anti-Semitism, but the experiences made him deeply compassionate toward others who faced prejudice.
As a child, Keats was sometimes picked on by bullies He used those childhood memories; in his picture book “Goggles,” two boys and a dog must outsmart a gang of bullies in order to keep a pair of motorcycle goggles they have found.
“If we all could really see (‘see’ as perceive, understand, discover) each other exactly as the other is,” Keats once said, “this would be a different world.”
For families looking for interesting activities during the holidays, the Keats exhibition is a wonderful choice. Family-related events are planned, and the museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Christmas Day.