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'The Snowy Day': The art of Ezra Jack Keats at the Skirball Center

by Michelle Lanz with Stephen Hoffman | Take Two®

Cover art for Ezra Jack Keats' award winning children's book, "The Snowy Day."

Children's book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats grew up in a poor Jewish household in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1920s. A creative child, he spent his days cobbling together artwork with scraps and discarded paint his father brought home from his job as a waiter.  

Growing up in a diverse, working class community gave Keats early exposure to people of many different races, and to the discrimination that people of color suffered in the early 20th century. 

His early experiences and his natural talent lead Keats to create one of the most important children's books of the 20th century, "The Snowy Day."

The award-winning book, published in 1962, was the first full-color picture book to feature an African-American as the central character. The story follows a young boy named Peter, on an adventure after waking up to a winter wonderland out his apartment window. 

"He understood a problem, in terms of representation of African-American children, and he wanted to solve it," said Skirball Center curator Erin Clancy. "He said himself that his goal was to give every child a feeling of genuine self acceptance."

Keats died after suffering a heart attack in 1983, but his legacy lives on. Now, L.A.'s Skirball Center is celebrating this book with a complete interactive exhibit. Clancy takes Take Two on a personal tour of the exhibit and explains why Keats was so important. 

Interview Highlights:

How African-Americans were portrayed in children's books before Ezra Jack Keats:

"We have just a few examples of the history of representation of African-American children in children's books, starting with the very first example, which was "Little Black Sambo" (1899). It is an example of the kinds of representation that you find, which are racially stereotyped, not positive images of African-American life. Until maybe the 1950s and '60s, it was a part of the American consciousness. Up until Keats' day, there was a push to have more positive reflections of African-American characters, but they were primarily through the lens of integration." 

The inspiration for the little boy in "The Snowy Day":


One of the more controversial images from the book:

Keats makes use of collage:


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