On March 11, 1916, Keats entered the world the third child of Polish Jewish immigrant parents. Keats showed artistic promise at an early age when he drew a mural on his parents' kitchen table. Rather than scold her son, Keats's mother proudly displayed the mural whenever they had company. Keats's father, on the other hand, fretted if his son could make a living as an artist. Though he feared his son would starve, secretly he was proud of the boy's talents.
In junior high Keats won a medal for his drawing which gave him a sense of both pride and accomplishment. The medal Keats kept as long as he lived. In high school Keats again proved his abilities in an oil painting that depicted jobless men standing around a fire trying to keep warm. During the Great Depression this painting served as a visual reminder of the hard times and earned Keats first place in the National Scholastic Art Contest. Then, by painting a sign for a candy store, Keats earned his first money, giving his father hope for his son's future.
Perhaps concerned because his father didn't outwardly praise his work, Keats sometimes painted covertly. It wasn't until his father died of a heart attack and Keats went through his wallet that he found clippings of times he'd been awarded for his art. His father had cut and kept these reminders, proud of his son's talents. However, with his father's death, Keats couldn't use the three scholarships he'd earned for art school. Needed to work to support the family, Keats loaded melons onto trucks for payment and then painted murals for the WPA, (Works Progress Administration). Continuing in his art field, Keats became a comic book illustrator. He also designed the background for the Captain Marvel comic strips.
With World War II raging, Keats enlisted into the U. S. Army Air Corps. There he learned to be a camouflage expert, creating the patterns and designs. After the war, Keats, spent time in Paris, improving his easel painting. His work was then displayed prominently on Fifth Avenue. Concerned, though, with the strong anti-Semitism in America, Keats changed his name from Katz to Keats, hoping that his Jewish ancestry wouldn't keep him from advancing in his artistic work. It didn't, as he landed an assignment illustrating for Collier's before going to Doubleday, designing book covers and then illustrating books. For almost ten years Keats illustrated other people's works before he decided to make a change.
Keats believed that children's books seemed contrived in their plots and lacked multiculturalism. Thus, he determined to change the industry by writing his own stories. His first attempt at co-writing and illustrating children's books resulted in My Dog is Lost about a Puerto Rican boy. From there Keats focused on an African-American boy named Peter. Using vibrant colored paper in his collages and blending them with opaque gouache, Keats innovated a new multi-textured style. His creative illustrations earned him the Caldecott Medal in 1963 for The Snowy Day. Throughout his "Peter" books, Keats portrays a child growing up, experiencing life's pleasures and difficulties like any other child, regardless of race. He was one of the first writers for children to use an urban setting in the books he wrote.
In all, Keats illustrated over 85 children's books, authoring 24 of them. Though he never married to have children of his own, Keats loved kids and understood the nuances of their young world. Before he passed away, Keats remained busy. For the musical version of his book The Trip, he designed the sets. He also created a poster for the New Theatre of Brooklyn. His final writing project involved the folk tale The Giant Turnip, which he both authored and illustrated. Keats died of a heart attack at age 67.
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