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    To buy or not to buy Ezra Jack Keats’ ‘Peter’s Chair’

    I couldn’t put the book down nor could I make up my mind to buy it. The book “Peter’s Chair” by Ezra Jack Keats and a plush doll figure of the little African American boy were in their original box, lying on an outside table amid loads of dusty junk.

    I’m always on the lookout for African American children’s books and dolls, and I usually buy them because they can be scarce. But I stood there in the hot sun, sweating, holding the box in my hand, unable to decide whether I wanted to take it home or not. I was afraid to put it down, though, for fear that someone else might snatch it up.

    Ezra Jack Keats' "The Snowy Day"

    Ezra Jack Keats’ “Peter’s Chair” as a mini book and plush doll in original box.

    I was at Renninger’s three-times-a-year Antiques and Collectibles Extravaganza in Kutztown, PA, with my auction pal Rebecca. I had not seen much that had grabbed me except for this item. Rebecca finally said, “Ask him how much he wants for it.” I did and the seller, standing at the far end of the table, said $5.

    If I had been at an auction, I’d have quickly handed him the $5 and hightailed it out of there. But something inside wouldn’t let me buy this book. Why? Maybe because the doll was more toy than real, the plastic was dirty, and what would I do with it if I took it home. Besides, I wasn’t really a fan of Keats.

    This packaging of “Peter’s Chair” as a mini book and doll was introduced in 1995, but the story itself was written in 1967. It is a tale of a little boy coming to terms with a new baby girl in his family. It’s a sweetly told and illustrated story with a gentle message about a boy who happens to be African American.

    Ezra Jack Keats' "The Snowy Day"

    Ezra Jack Keats and the cover of “Peter’s Chair.”

    To be honest, I had always assumed that Keats was African American, primarily because many of his characters were so. I was surprised to learn that he was not.

    Keats was born poor and Jewish in Brooklyn in 1916, and he knew hardship and discrimination, according to his biography on the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation website. He changed his name from Jacob “Jack” Ezra Katz during the 1940s when anti-Semitism was in the air. He started drawing at an early age but was dissuaded by his father who wanted him to choose an occupation that would support him. But Keats stuck with his love of art, and took classes when he could while holding down a job.

    He painted murals for the Works Progress Administration, a government employment program during the Depression, and illustrated comic books, and newspaper and magazine covers. He caught a break when the editorial director of a publishing company saw one of his cover illustrations at a New York bookstore and asked him to illustrate children’s books.

    Ezra Jack Keats' "The Snowy Day"

    The young black child who inspired the character “Peter” in several of Ezra Jack Keats’ books.

    Keats wrote and illustrated his first solo children’s book in the 1960s, with the main character a little boy named Peter. In the biography, he explained how he started drawing him as a black child:

    “Then began an experience that turned my life around,” he wrote, “working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I’d begun to illustrate children’s books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book.”

    Peter was based on a boy whose photo Keats had seen in Life magazine in 1940. It was a series of photos submitted to the magazine’s “Pictures to the Editors” section. The boy was shown reacting to a blood test for a malaria survey that was conducted at his school in Quitman, GA. 

    That first book – created in collage form – was titled “The Snowy Day,” and Peter would appear in six more books as he aged to adolescence. “Snowy Day” won the Caldecott Medal in 1963. Others of Keats books included an array of multiracial children.  

    Ezra Jack Keats' "The Snowy Day"

    The cover and an inside page of Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day.”

    It was the first full-color picture book with an African American as the main character, according to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which held an exhibit of Keats’ works last year. He revolutionized children’s books, giving rise to characters and settings that were different from the norm.

    The book apparently stirred some controversy, though, with some folks wondering why he didn’t mention that the child was black and questioning why a white author was writing the story.

    Keats got lots of positive mail from those who loved the story of a little boy (whose race is never mentioned) experiencing the snow. “There was a teacher (who) wrote in to Ezra, saying, ‘The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves,’” Deborah Pope, executive director of the foundation, told NPR in 2012. “These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves.”

    Keats wrote and illustrated 22 children’s books of his own, and he illustrated more than 85 books. He died in 1983 of a heart attack.

    I finally bought the book and doll. I’m glad that I did – for what I learned about Keats, and also because the boxed set seems to be worth a lot more than the 5 bucks I paid for it. For now, I’ll add it alongside the other children’s books I have collected.



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    1. I just did a quick online search for the book and doll, and you did get it for a steal! Great find! Sell it to me if you tire of it.



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