Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983) is one of the giants of children’s picture book publishing. If you’ve never come across his work before, you are in for a real treat. And if you have read one or two of his books before, go find some more because he was both varied and prolific and you are bound to find something marvellous.
To put it simply, his books are a joy!
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Keats grew up a poor, Jewish, New Yorker during the Great Depression. It was this experience of discrimination, poverty, but also a vibrant and diverse community, that helped shape his pioneering use of minority characters in the picture books he wrote and illustrated.
These included ‘Peter’, the young black boy who is the central character in seven of his books, and stars in his very first – the award-winning Snowy Day, first published way back in the 1960s.
However, while Peter does feature in the book I’ve chosen for our list, the story actually focuses on a different character; Peter’s friend, Archie.
‘Pet Show is a fabulously witty book, about poor Archie’s troubles finding a cat that he wants to take to a community pet show.
All the other kids have a creature to take, but on the day of the show, Archie’s cat has disappeared… I won’t spoil the ending by telling you how he eventually solves his problem as it’s one of my favourite story reveals.
You’ll just have to read it to find out!
The art and the Artist
In the biography on their website, the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation describes Keats as wanting ‘no child to be an outsider. “If we could see each other exactly as the other is,” he wrote, “this would be a different world.”’
And it’s this different world that he drew in his picture books. Where the community portrayed in the background is as much a part of the story as anything that actually happens.
It is a vibrant, colourful place – an Expressionist artist’s dream of painterly texture and collaged snippets of pattern. Recognisably New York, it is a warm, welcoming place where people of diverse backgrounds and different generations live happily together.
I love the playful little touches such as the children’s chalk drawings scribbled all over the walls of Archie’s apartment building, or the mouse that rides on another child’s hat.
And one of my favourite spreads is where the children are only silhouettes – Archie’s shadow shown dashing to join the others with a tantalisingly obscure shape clutched in his hands.
And the Chekhov’s gun of an old woman’s shadow is sketched in behind him.
Every reading provides something new – even after years of enjoying these stories, we still find new things to exclaim over. Some books are the kind that are so evocative they stay in your mind forever, and that’s what Pet Show! is for us.
By the same author:
Ezra Jack Keats created many wonderful picture books with diverse characters across a rainbow of ethnicities. This bind-up includes nine of his best-loved stories and also has additional material describing his life and work. If you have not ready any of his work with your children before, then this is a great place to start!
Picture Books with Diverse Characters
Have you seen my full list of the best 23 picture books with diverse characters? Just like Pet Show, all of these picture books feature black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) boys as main characters. Something that’s as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth in children’s books, and a problem I’ve written about here.
Check out the list to find out more about our favourites, and take a peek inside. If you like the look of Pet Show, I’m sure you’ll find some others to love there too!