Author-Illustrator’s Foundation Spurs Innovative School-based Projects

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Childrens' Art

Published with permission of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation provides mini-grants to public libraries and schools with the goal of promoting literacy and the love of learning. Here, children participate in a project at the Gorham Public Library in Gorham, N.H., in which they create art based on a book by Ezra Jack Keats.

Who, having read the story of Peter going out to play in “The Snowy Day,” can forget this book by Ezra Jack Keats?

The simple collage-and-paint illustrations are striking, and the book’s presentation of the quick joys and small sadnesses of childhood are poignant.

The Snowy Day

The book, published in 1962, was the first modern full-color picture book to have an African-American main character.

Keats died in 1983, but not before setting up the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which promotes literacy, the love of learning and the pleasure of reading.

The foundation offers mini-grants to public libraries and public schools, said executive director Deborah Pope, and this year includes funding for projects supporting Common Core standards.

In 2013, the public library in Boiling Springs, N.C., received a mini-grant to create a “story walk.” The 20,000-volume library is located in a YMCA.

Media specialist Karen Bell set up 30 posts along a fitness trail outside the Ruby C. Hunt YMCA and attached successive pages from a book to each post. “You read the whole book,” she said, as you walk the trail.

“About every three weeks, I’ll change the book,” she said, giving kids new reading material.

The library serves 160 to 200 kids in a reading program each summer.

Lewiston Middle School in Lewiston, Maine, received a mini-grant for a summer program serving, among others, the town’s large Somali refugee community. The students created their own book, titled “A Day in Lewiston,” which included essays about different parts of the town.

“When children make their own books they become much more invested in the subject,” Pope said. The young Somali teens “were able to feel like they belonged” as they investigated and wrote about their new community, she said.

While the mini-grants go only to public schools and libraries, the projects can involve partnerships.

The Herrin City Library in Herrin, Ill., used its mini-grant in a project bringing together a school, college, architectural firm, public television station and a food festival. A local architect taught 240 fourth-graders about the architecture of their city. Teachers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale presented workshops, including one on architectural ideas. The children did a study of Keats and then made architectural studies and collages. Their activity was videotaped by film students from the university and the video aired on local public TV. The public library and a food festival were venues for showing the students’ art.

The M.R. Davis Public Library in Southaven, Miss., sought to create a space where kids, including those with autism, could be comfortable with each other. It offered a series of Art Nights, each based on a Keats book, and a series of Builders Nights, offering creative play with Legos. With these activities in a welcoming and supportive space, kids were able to socialize with each other.

In 2014 the foundation awarded 60 mini-grants of up to $500 each to schools and libraries across the country. The deadline for applications this year is March 31.