The characters and world Keats created are shared and developed from book to book, allowing readers to see the back story of each kid, and witness how they deal with the problems of growing up! The themes explored in his books run the gamut of childhood issues and triumphs, and are invaluable springboards to the most important discussions educators and parents can have with their children.
Peter, introduced at age 5 or 6 in The Snowy Day, appears in six Keats’ books. He is thoughtful and sensitive and brings the neighborhood kids together. As we see in all of his adventures Peter never gives up. Though he’s rejected by the older boys in The Snowy Day, he goes on to have wonderful adventures on his own; in Whistle for Willie he masters an important skill despite repeated failure; and in A Letter to Amy he withstands the taunts of others, as well as his own insecurities.
Louie, the hero of four books, lives with his mother. Silent and withdrawn, he goes to a puppet show, falls in love with a puppet named Gussie, and bursts into speech. Amazed to hear Louie’s voice, the other kids develop understanding and compassion for this lonely child. He realizes he won’t lose his friends when he leaves his old neighborhood (The Trip), and with the help of his new father, he reveals his imagination in the face of other kids’ taunts (Regards to the Man in the Moon).
Susie, Peter’s younger sister, appears in four Keats’ books, first as Peter’s baby sister, then as an insightful puppeteer in Louie and a spaceship captain in Regards to the Man in the Moon. Susie becomes a leader and girl not to be triffled with!
Archie is Peter’s best friend. Together in Goggles! They outwit a gang of bullies, emerging from the threats with calm and good cheer, seeing the bright side made possible through their partnership. Archie continues to grow as the resourceful boy who can deal with every setback possible in Pet Show, and still retain his generous spirit.
Amy, the title character in A Letter to Amy, braves the crowd of boys at Peter’s birthday party with courage, conviction and the most unusual present. Her parrot says, “Happy Birthday,” to Peter and proves to the boys that girls don’t ruin birthday parties, they make them better.
In Dreams, Amy is the girl Roberto (the puppeteer in Louie and a contestant in Pet Show!) confides in before he has a night of adventure. Calming himself when he can’t fall asleep, Roberto protects Archie’s cat from an angry dog on the street in a surprising way.
Then there are the girls who live far from Ezra’s familiar locales. There’s Jennie, who deals with disappointment with the help of special friends (Jennie’s Hat); Clementina, who is able to find beauty even in a vast desert (Clementina’s Cactus); and Maggie, who finds compassion for lonely pirate who steals her pet cricket (Maggie and the Pirate.)
Ezra did not overlook the importance of parents in this world. Peter’s mother and father are gentle supporters of Peter’s adventures. Louie’s mother and new found father believe in him and back him up through his emotional turmoil and growth. These supportive adults are another reason for the appeal of Keats books. They are dependable and help the children find accessible solutions to familiar childhood and intergenerational problems without being overbearing.
The children in Ezra’s neighborhood are African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Anglo. The harsh environment of the inner city is recognizable, but it is imbued with the color and warmth found in the wonder of childhood.
Ezra’s books provide parents, educators and caretakers with the kind of literature we want for our children. These books encourage visual literacy and reading fluency, and they offer age-appropriate models for problem-solving and social development.
Postscript: Though most are now out of print, Ezra’s wordless books are priceless for the screwball fun the illustrations provide for the pre- and early reader. These books offer parents the opportunity to make up their own stories based on Ezra’s vivid illustrations. In Clementina’s Cactus, a little girl learns that desert rain can work magic. Pssst! Doggie- and Skates! recount the adventures of animals in delightful slapstick situations. And in Kitten for a Day, still in print, a puppy plays with a group of kittens and tries to become one himself! If you want your child to love books and reading these books will show them the way.