Finding Ezra Jack Keats: In Search of a Children’s Book Icon

Author photo: Virginia McGee ButlerVirginia McGee Butler is a writer and early childhood educator.

On a mission, I entered the Ezra Jack Keats archives in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in early 2011.

Chosen by the Keats Foundation Executive Director Deborah Pope and the de Grummond Curator Ellen Ruffin to do research for things to include in Viking’s fiftieth anniversary edition of Keats’ iconic The Snowy Day, I searched for items that would be meaningful for an extra eight-page supplement. Soon I found myself yearning to have had the information I was finding when I had taught Keats’ books in kindergarten and second grade. So much of his childhood and life presaged the stories he would tell and the art he would create in his picture books. On a deadline, I could not dwell on those treasures. I determined to come back and write a biography for those who still teach and read his classic books.

I returned to de Grummond immediately after I finalized the anniversary project and started with the six archival boxes containing drafts of Keats’ unfinished autobiography. Each box contained several drafts of different chapters of his manuscript with the final one on top, dated 1982.

Since his death came in May 1983, I concluded that it was still a work in progress. He told his own stories as he must have told them as a raconteur at a dinner party. Frequently, one story led to another until the chronology got lost. He rearranged and deleted items from one draft to another as writers will do, so I read each draft to be sure I didn’t miss a nugget. In one set, he gave all his people fictitious names, but he gave up on that. These drafts gave me a nice framework for starting.

This autobiography, sketches and original art, and memorabilia that ranged from his childhood through his successful career as children’s book author and illustrator filled approximately one-hundred-eighty archival boxes. Items ranged from the sentimental to the comical. There were baby shoes, lifelong newspaper clippings, original art, and his friend’s gift of Caldecott underwear.

Two large file folder boxes of correspondence held material including a letter from the author Langston Hughes wishing he had grandchildren to whom he could give The Snowy Day; a valentine from his current love; business correspondence; responses to Nancy Larrick’s criticism in “The All-White World of Children’s Books” in The Saturday Review; and letters to his niece Bonnie from his dog Jack. The special collections crew at the McCain Library of USM, which houses the de Grummond Collection, saved my chosen work table and kept me supplied with requested material as I put all this information into my computer.

Then I came home to write. This wealth of information needed order, and I began to put it together much like working a jigsaw puzzle. The Keats archives formed the frame and obvious inclusions, but there were omitted sections and tiny missing pieces that sent me to additional sources for clarification or completion. Some answers were straight forward and came from logical places. Others were serendipitous and unexpected.

For instance, Keats gave a vivid picture of discovering the Arlington Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, but the image of the inside was unclear. My husband and I had one free afternoon when we went to New York City for the opening of the Keats exhibit at The Jewish Museum. We took the subway to the library and found that tiny missing piece that fit exactly. My photographer granddaughter, based in Brooklyn, took photographs for the book so readers can see it as well.

At a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Los Angeles, I heard illustrator Bryan Collier begin his keynote by telling about his own childhood when he found Peter, a boy who looked like himself, in the book his mother brought home from the Head Start classes she taught. Probably the two forty-five-minute phone conversations I had with Keats’ lifelong friends, Martin and Lillie Pope, and the friendship I formed with Deborah Pope as she attended the yearly Kaigler Book Festival became my most enjoyable research as they filled in personal recollections. More resource locations, both expected and unusual, are listed in the bibliography and the source notes section of Becoming Ezra Jack Keats. &


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