Because my father and Ezra Jack Keats were best friends, I grew up thinking Ezra was my uncle. He had not yet written The Snowy Day when I was of an age to read picture books and so when he did, I couldn’t really grasp the magnitude of his accomplishment. Nor could I, as a child, understand the fact that my father, Martin Pope, was a world-renowned scientist. For me, these two men were present as playfellows, co-conspirators, and cheerleaders.
The essay below was written by my father for the opening of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats at The Jewish Museum in New York City, now at the Skirball. I would like to add a few words to his. The experience of poverty and prejudice might have hardened my father’s and Ezra’s hearts; instead, it made each of them, in his own way, determined to work against the perpetuation of such injustice. Their deep affection for and belief in one another fed their resolve to escape from deprived childhoods and realize their dreams, one in science and one in art. Integral to their plans was marking their path—the path of books, friendship, and imagination—to help coming generations of children find their way to better lives. Even now, at the age of 95, I think you will hear in my father’s words the depth of his continuing dedication to their shared childhood dreams.
My story with Ezra began eighty-one years ago, in the East New York section of Brooklyn, so often pictured in his books. We met in summer school; he was fourteen and I was twelve. Ezra had failed algebra because he wasn’t interested in math, I failed because I corrected my teacher. Our bond as friends was cemented that summer. We were two boys without hope, from poor homes, living in depressed times, seeing no good prospects ahead—much as the youth of today must feel, without training or jobs in sight.
But though there were problems, and poverty as far as we could see, we were curious about the world. Ezra painted, I read, we talked … about everything. Our love of learning drew us together. We walked to the library together whenever we could. When the books at the Stone Avenue branch had been exhausted, we walked to the Arlington branch, located in a wealthier neighborhood and endowed with a better book collection. There, we passed grander homes from which we were separated by an invisible wall. Beyond that wall we knew one could find opportunity, recognition, and connection—unattainable to us.
We walked each other home after each outing, back and forth, back and forth—he the taller, older, thinner, I the smaller, younger; his arm slung over my shoulder, heads touching, talking, talking, talking. He was Peter, I was Archie. I was the explainer of all things scientific, like Archie, who won the pet prize for his germ pet. He was the dreamer, I was the pragmatist. We promised to stay friends, always, and to continue to walk each other home. And we were best friends until his death at the age of sixty-seven. Though he is not with us in body today, his work is, and our friendship continues for me through this exhibition. For my lifetime, he is still walking me home.
Who could know, Ez, that eighty years later one of the most venerated museums in Los Angeles, the Skirball Cultural Center, would be hosting this masterful, scholarly presentation of your celebrated works? Despite everything, and through all these years, we remain two small boys, eyes wide open, intensely curious about the wonders of the world.
—Martin Pope, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, New York University; President, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation; Ezra’s best friend