I love Ezra Jack Keats– jeepers, who doesn’t? This year is his hundredth birthday, and I knew I wanted to write about him at some point. Snowy Day is a favourite around here, and I thought I’d do that. But then we didn’t have very many snowy days this winter, and a lesser-known, although still well-known and wonderful, story of his became the flavour of the week in our house. I’ve been very happy to read it over and over again for two reasons: a) I love it and, of course, the writing and art stand up to rereadings; b) I’ve been finding it a tough nut to crack, in terms of the in-depth philosophical and theoretical analyses to which you’ve all become so accustomed from me. The book is Peter’s Chair, written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats (our copy was selected by the toddler Changeling all by her very own self at Porter Square Books, a favourite around here). And let me say up front that Ezra Jack Keats is the author and artist I most revere for the truthfulness and honesty which permeates his work.
You know, normally what you all get from me are the private thoughts I’ve worked up about children’s literature over the years, often drawn out of me by conversations with my daughter, who’s often much more perceptive than I am; her emphasis on flight in Swan, for example, recently impressed me. In this case, I was struggling: I knew I loved this book madly, I knew I was ready to talk about that, but I didn’t know where to start and my Changeling was in bed. Desperate, I asked my husband what most struck him about the book: “Its sense of place,” he immediately said. (Why don’t I ask him more often? He’s smart, that guy.) I was mulling that over, when I got into a conversation with my mother about Keats: “You know he was Jewish,” she casually mentioned. I was struck dumb (a rare event), not by the newsflash, but by the fact that I’d loved his books so deeply, found them so true and honest, and had never bothered to learn about him. I never knew he’d changed his name, for example, in reaction to anti-Semitism. Let me save you the trouble: read here about his fascinating life and the work he did and bridges he built.
I suppose this unfamiliarity was partly because, in a rare turn of events, these were classics I didn’t read often growing up, except for Snowy Day (how I longed for a red peaked snowsuit!). The others, including Peter’s Chair, I’ve enjoyed finding with the Changeling more than I can say. I’m almost grateful not to have read them before so that I could have the wonderful experience of reading them for the first time with my own child, discovering them together, and, in some cases, together with my mother. One day last summer we were visiting my parents and went to the library with my mother. While there, my mother found lovely videos of the books animated and read aloud (look for the Weston Woods link on that page). We watched them together, and the memory is one I’ll treasure for a long time, I can tell you that. My daughter was kneeling on the ground in front of the sofa, mesmerized by the snow falling around the little peaked red hood we all three knew and loved so well. I sat behind her, occasionally touching her soft, curly hair (Her: “Stop it!” Me: “Sorry, bunny.”). And that’s the day we first found Peter’s Chair.
So, well, you could say the book has a pretty special history for me. But there I was, still learning a lot about it before I wrote this. And that, to me, perfectly encapsulates the book: even one reading gives you such a strong sense of familiarity with the characters and Peter’s world, but even multiple readings leave so much to ferret out. And that’s what I mean when I say that Keats is truthful and honest. How often have you sat with an old friend, chatting away, and then had your mind totally blown away when they say, “I grew up there, you know,” or, “I dated him once,” or, “I’ve been struggling with depression for years.” “Oh, wow,” you think: “I had no idea.” That experience is exactly the one you’ll have over and over again with these books.
In this case, we see Peter’s home, his treasured possessions, his beloved dog, his warm and loving family, the new baby coming into this environment– and the hurt it engenders in Peter. We see him hurt that all of his baby furniture is being repainted for his baby sister, Susie. We see him being shushed as she sleeps. We see him finally find his old blue chair, and his decision to protect his last little piece of babyhood (perhaps sense of self?) as he packs a bag to run away with Willie. Finally, we see him discover that his old chair’s too small, and we see him go back home. But what are his feelings? Why does he leave home? What finally makes him go back home? When he does go back home, why does he tease his mother by pretending to be behind the curtains, but then jumping out from behind the chest? What makes him finally decide to repaint the chair for Susie?
Oh, yes, these are honest books, books which give you a place, give you people, and give you such perfectly human representations that you don’t always know the answers to your questions; a rare virtue. This perfect incompleteness comes through both in words and images: Keats’ use of collage is just beyond perfect, and it perfectly complements his collage of words. Not every conversation is complete, and, by definition, every piece of the collage is individually incomplete. And yet, built up together, he creates a vivid world: he gives you enough to tell you who people are, to give you a really strong sense of their home, and to make you feel like you could walk right through the pages and be at home. That’s his genius: he teaches us, adults and children together, that you will never know everything about anyone’s feelings or motivations, but you can still appreciate them and be friends. And all that without ever preaching at you.
What do I think about the answers to my questions? I don’t want to tell you too much of what I think. The whole point of the story is to think it through while sitting with your own Changeling on your knee. But I’m not as strong a person as Keats, so I’ll tell you I enjoy watching Peter take charge. He feels powerless, I think, supplanted by his sister: hurt that she’s getting his place. When he leaves, he gets a breather, a chance to realize that he’s still his own person and can make his own place. He chooses his place behind the chest instead of the curtain, teasing his mother. He chooses to sit in an adult chair and repaint his little chair for Susie. He becomes his own person deliberately, instead of by default: a decision we all have to make again and again, as Keats himself knew full well.
His genius is in showing us that. “Show, don’t tell,” we’re always told when we’re writing. He doesn’t tell us that. He shows us how.
I’m so glad that I’ve still got so much more of him to discover. Whoever you are, however much Keats you’ve read, I know you have more to discover, too.