Hanging on the wall next to the clock at Webster Library is a painted figure of a girl, pointing toward the ceiling. She's unassuming; wearing muted colors. People see her, but no one ever asks why she is there or (even more intriguing) what she is pointing at. When I started working at Webster Library, that was the first thing I noticed because I knew instantly who had painted her...
... Ezra Jack Keats.
How was the man who famously created The Snowy Day and so many other classic picture books connected to Webster Library?
The Friends of Webster Library who (amazingly) run the used bookshop in our basement told me bits and pieces, but no one knew the full story. For that, I was told I had to talk to Dean Engel. She was one of the first volunteers who started The Book Cellar, and a friend of Ezra Jack Keats.
During the city budget crisis in the mid-70s, Webster Library was threatened with closure (after all, our neighbor, Yorkville Library, is only a few blocks away). Dean and a few other incredible volunteers decided to find a way to increase Webster Library's visibility — and circulation. They came up with a program called "Mondays in May." Every Monday while the budget was being negotiated, Webster Library featured a local children's book author or illustrator for story time. Keats lived on East 82nd Street and eagerly agreed to participate. Dean was in charge of hosting Keats's program, and in the process, met a lifelong friend.
Before its renovation in 2003, Webster Library's children's room used to be on the second floor. Keats painted the little wooden girl so she would point the way up the steps, directing kids to the many books upstairs. The square in her hands originally held the children's room hours.
Webster Library also owns a portrait of Keats, painted by his neighbor in 1983, the year Keats passed away. The Friends of Webster Library framed the painting and included a plaque that reads: A man who touched so many, so deeply. With love and gratitude for his contributions to art, literature and children all over the world.
To celebrate our connection with Keats, I put up a Snowy Day bulletin board every winter. It's fun to tell class visits our history and show them the girl he painted just for us. Ezra Jack Keats's books have always made me smile, but now, they do even more.
To tie in with this year's 50th anniversary of The Snowy Day, the Jewish Museum currently has an exhibition of Keats's work called The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, on display until January 29, 2012. It not only features original art, but letters, sketches, and other artifacts as well. Some NYPL libraries may still have bookmarks offering $3 off one admission. Call and find out! After New York, the exhibition will travel to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA; the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, CA; and the Akron Art Museum in Ohio.
In addition to Keats's stories, here are some other excellent Keats resources in the library's collection: