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Keats' Neighborhood
Author: Ezra Jack Keats
Recently, I spotted an old friend while scanning rows of used books. “Whistle for Willie” by Ezra Jack Keats was first published in 1964 and was discovered by our family in the early 80s. As I leafed through the book, my mind traveled back through time to the evening bedtime ritual of reading to two small daughters. As I looked again at the charming pictures, I didn’t find it surprising that this story of a boy and his pet provided the name for our family’s first pet—a hamster.

Author and illustrator Keats created the first children’s book that featured a child of color. His expressive and colorful books portray universal experiences of children: enjoying a snowy day, learning to whistle, wishing for a beautiful hat, and imaging who lived behind apartment doors, to name just a few. He broke creative barriers when he fashioned magnificent collages to show the urban landscapes as friendly and warm venus in which these wonderful stories take place. Beautiful marbled papers. Scraps of cloth and newspaper. Bits of wallpaper. Any and everything became a mode of expression of the everyday scenes in cities everywhere.

Enchanted by my find, I checked a local bookstore to see what other Keats’ books were available. I was delighted to find “An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury: Keat’s Neighborhood” (ISBN 0-670-03586-6). This volume contains 10 complete stories with an introduction by Anita Silvey, a biographical sketch and reflections by Jerry Pinkney, Simms Taback, Reynold Ruffins, and Eric Carle about Keats’ artistic influence. Awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1963, Keats’ book “The Snowy Day” was named by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 Most Important Children’s Books of the 20th Century.

Excert from the Introduction

 “As someone who had experienced both poverty and anti-Semitism, Ezra Jack Keats found himself sympathetic to city children from different races and backgrounds who had suffered as he had. These children mattered to him. But in the early 60s those children’s faces, and those experiences, simply did not appear in the books that were published.”

If you love cities, you owe it to yourself to get this delightful treasury. It will stimulate your senses and awareness of cityscapes.

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