Ezra would be proud

Ezra Jack Keats is one of our most beloved and influential children’s book authors and illustrators. In 1962, his groundbreaking book, “The Snowy Day,” introduced multiculturalism into mainstream children’s literature and captured the hearts of readers all over the world. Today, third- to 12th-grade students are encouraged to write and illustrate their own stories through the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition.

Born in Brooklyn in 1916, Keats and his family lived in an East New York tenement for most of his childhood. Exposed to poverty and anti-Semitism, he understood what it felt like to be an outsider, and this social isolation became a common theme in his work.

Growing up, he used art as a means of escape and learned that his talent could help him overcome obstacles in life. Despite Keats’s passion, his father discouraged him from pursuing a career in art, terrified that his son would starve. Yet, Keats continued to draw and paint, encouraged by his teachers and librarians. Keats was first recognized and honored for his artistic talent when he was a young boy when his school presented him with a small pewter medal, which he treasured until his death in 1983.

The medal did not have significant monetary value, but it was meaningful to Keats. It reminded him that he and his work mattered. Keats appreciated the early support he received and wanted to give back by providing all children with opportunities to succeed. In 1963, he started the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation to support art and literacy in public schools and libraries.

After he died, he left the royalties of his books to the foundation. Among its many programs, including Minigrants and the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, the foundation (in partnership with the city Department of Education) sponsors the annual competition.

This year marks the competition’s 26th year. All third to 12th graders enrolled in New York City public school programs are invited to participate. Students are supervised by teachers or librarians, but are required to complete 100 percent of the work themselves.

Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, explains the value of bookmaking in schools.

“Creating books advances curriculum, making it come alive for the kids,” says Pope. “It becomes something that lives and breathes and encourages young people to read.”

One hundred twenty-five young writers and artists worked on their books for three months before submitting them to the jury for review. The judging panel, a group of local educators, librarians, artists, and scholars, enjoyed reading these handmade books covering a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the adventures of macaroni-and-cheese superheroes to the ravages of war. The judges collected books shaped like fans, folded into origami, and decorated with flip-ups and pop-ups.

They looked for excellence in art and writing, a strong connection between picture and text, and originality.

The four books chosen as the city-wide winners on April 26 vary in subject, style, genre, and artistry, but they were all created in Keats’s spirit — beautifully illustrated stories that speak to readers in clear, simple language with compassion, humor, hope, and truth.

All four city-wide winners were awarded a $500 prize and a medal, but the greatest gift they received was a feeling of pride after accomplishing such rewarding work.

“If you work hard enough and long enough and give it all you got,” says seventh-grade winner Anne Wang. “You will achieve something great.”

For info on how to make books with your child, visit www.ezra-jack-keats.org/we-love-books/. For a complete list of winners, visit www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/sites/default/files/files/pdf/events/ejk/Ezra_Jack_Keats_Bookmaking_Competition_Winners_with_annotations%20and%20HM.pdf.

Detour to 1938

by Shelley Polanco, fourth grade (winner in third-to-fifth grade category)

PS/IS 333, The Museum School in the Bronx

Including herself as the main character, Polanco created a fun, interactive literary experience that teaches a wide audience about an important hero in history. In a dream sequence, she goes back in time and encounters a young Martin Luther King, Jr., who wants to grow up to be a famous jazz musician instead of a political figure. With the use of modern technology, like the Internet and a tablet, she gives the future leader a glimpse of major life-changing events based on his work, including an introduction to our first African-American president. In the end, Polanco convinces the young boy to listen to her advice and stay focused in his fight for civil rights.

Tyler Learns How To Tie His Shoes

by Deidre Darius, 11th grade (winner in the ninth-to-12th grade category)

LaGuardia High School in Manhattan

Darius’s art teacher assigned a bookmaking project for her advanced illustration class. When the students brainstormed ideas, half joking, Darius proposed writing a book on how to tie shoes, since her laces always come undone.

Her teacher acknowledged her open laces and showed her a few shoe-tying tricks.

Then, Darius got busy with markers, pen and ink to create a story all readers can relate to. In it, a boy walks down the street and trips over his shoelaces.

The book offers step-by-step instructions to help the boy — and the reader — learn to tie. Real shoelaces are included.

Rebirth, New York

by Anne Wang, seventh grade (winner in the sixth-to-eighth grade category)

IS 259K, William McKinley in Brooklyn

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks inspired Wang’s book, which commemorates the events with a story of rebirth and hope. She starts the book with dark colors. Through the clouds on the first page, the reader looks down on dirt, steel, and destruction. As the story progresses, more vibrant colors begin to replace the darkness. Through the use of watercolors, acrylic paint, and colored pencils, Wang rebuilds the city, including an intricate, handmade pop-up of the Freedom Tower, and shows how the world becomes brighter when people come together and work toward something positive.

Arrows and the Butterfly

by Dyanara Banana, 12th grade (winner in the ninth-to-12th grade category)

James Madison High School in Brooklyn

Banana’s story stemmed from her interest in the butterfly effect theory, and its relationship to time travel. Two strangers share a chance encounter, which results in dramatically different outcomes in their lives. The main characters struggle with feelings of low self-worth and question their purpose in life. It is a thought-provoking book that raises many questions relevant to teenagers in an uncertain, often tumultuous, world.