By Community Affairs reporter Cherri Gregg.
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A new exhibit opens Friday at the National Museum of Jewish American History that showcases the work of a children’s author and illustrator most known for breaking a color barrier in children’s literature.
The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Ezra Jack Keats was raised in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. He suffered prejudice and poverty, but developed sympathy for others who suffered the same fate.
Much of this emotion and empathy is evident in the colors and composition of his artwork.
“He transformed his own, impoverished, unhappy life into something beautiful,” says Ivy Weingram, an associate curator at the museum. “Through courage and imagination and hard work you can really see it come alive through the vivid color and illustration in Keats’ work.”
She says many people will be drawn to the new exhibit, “The Snowy Day and the art of Ezra Jack Keats” because of Keats’ story.
Others will be drawn because of his paintings, illustrations and books, including the critically acclaimed and immensely popular Snowy Day (1962). The book was published during the height of the civil rights movement and was the first to feature an African American protagonist in a modern full color picture book.
“He continued the story of that child, Peter,” says Weingram, “so we watched Peter grow up through a number of later works of his.”
Keats wrote about Peter in Whistle for Willie (1964) and Peter’s Chair (1967), including colorful urban settings and landscapes unseen in picture books at that time.
“He drew on social conditions in America through the civil rights movement,” says Weingram, “he also was inspired by Haiku art and Japanese poetry and the simplicity of the text.”
The exhibit includes 80 pieces of Keats’ original artwork, reading area, letters and more.
“The exhibition really does relate many childhood joys – play, friendships and fun,” says Weingram, “and that is relatable to everyone no matter what your background or religion.”
The exhibit runs through October 20th. For more on the exhibit and upcoming special events, visit www.nmajh.org.