Q&A: Ann McGovern, Ezra Jack Keats’ Friend & Collaborator

Curatorial Assistant Emily Casden: You’ve worn many hats throughout your career: you’re an award-winning children’s author, poet, biographer, editor—and a model too! Am I missing anything?

Ann McGovern: Interacting with children in schools and hearing their feedback is important to me. I talk to kids about writing and reading, and what inspired me to write some of my 55 books. I’ve been invited to do school visits for over 30 years, both in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, and I look forward to doing more. Once, Ezra came with me to a school visit in Westchester!

Curatorial Assistant Emily Casden & Anne McGovern

Emily, Ann, & Keats' illustration for Ann's book, "Zoo, Where Are You?"

EC: That must have been great fun!

AM: Oh yes. And we didn’t tell the teacher! I said I was bringing a friend, and I don’t know if she liked that, but when she found out the friend was Ezra Jack Keats, she was so thrilled, and so were the kids! They went wild.

EC: How did you first get started as a writer of children’s books?

AM: That’s a funny story. When I was 22, my first job was stamping dates on galley proofs in the production department at Little Golden Books. Three days of stamping and I was bored to death. In the Ladies Room, I heard a woman say she needed a Golden Book about Roy Rogers. I didn’t even know who Roy Rogers was but I bought a comic book on the way home. I stayed up all night, studying the characters and wrote what I thought would pass as a story: Roy Rogers and the Mountain Lion. Then I found the woman who turned out to be the artistic director. I had a terrible stutter at that time and stuttered when I gave her my manuscript. She was totally amazed. She said my work was “not too terrible.” [laughs] It took us five minutes to fix up the story and it was published.

EC: How did you meet Keats?

AM: I met Ezra in 1961, fifty years ago. I think it was a children’s book gathering—either PEN or the author’s guild. And we became friends. When I met him he asked me to read The Snowy Day. And I read it and I said “It’s a wonderful story.” And he said, “well what do you think of the writing?” And I said “I think it needs a little work.” [laughs] So I marked it up, and he took most of my notes. And then he invited me to the Caldecott dinner! [laughs] I was so proud of him.

EC: Not long after, Keats illustrated your 1964 book Zoo, Where Are You? How did this collaboration come about?

AM: Well, I had a marvelous experience with Ursula Nordstrom, the editor at Harper & Row. I had called their office and asked to see her, and for some reason they let me! [laughs] So she said “what can I do for you?” and I said “I have a book you’re going to love.” And she took the manuscript and read it in front of me, and didn’t say a word! I was very nervous. Then she picked up the phone and called her secretary and said “bring in a contract.”

EC: Wow! How did Keats get involved?

AM: She [Ursula] asked me if I had any ideas for the art and I said “no—but I’ll think about it.” So when I saw Ezra I told him about this wonderful encounter with Ursula Nordstrom, and he asked to see the manuscript. Ezra read the story and thought his collage art technique would be perfect for the book, so he asked if he could illustrate it. I think he read the book visually. He had a wonderful visual mind. And now when I read it I think no one else could have done the art except Ezra.

EC: As an author working with another illustrator, what’s the process? What was the exchange between you, the writer, and Keats, the artist, that resulted in the final book?

AM: Ezra visualized certain elements on the pages of my book where a child was collecting all kinds of junk. He asked me to change the text a few times to fit his artistic needs and the book was better for it. For instance in the page you have in your exhibition, he said “I’d like to see a key.” What a wonderful design element!

EC: It sounds like you had a very special working relationship on this project.

AM: We had a lot of fun doing it. I didn’t ask to see his art work as he went along. I never did because in the old days in publishing when you brought in an artist, you never told them what to do. We talked about it, but I never saw it all until he was done.

EC: You mentioned the spread with the key on the page, which we have in the introductory section of our exhibition. The collage includes a photograph of Keats, you, and your son. Can you tell us about the spread?

AM: Oh, we had so much fun!! I was living on West 92nd Street with my son, Peter, who was about 11. Ezra liked Peter and the three of us would do fun things together. I don’t remember whose idea it was to have a picture of us in my story as part of the junk that my hero collected. I asked a neighbor friend of mine to take the picture. Peter gave Ezra his fake moustache and I wore an old hat. (Later, Ezra grew a real moustache.) The picture is perfect for the story and Ezra’s art. My son Peter remembers—and I think it’s true!—that Ezra named his character Peter from The Snowy Day after him.

EC: What an honor to be immortalized as Peter in The Snowy Day! You’ve shared some wonderful memories of Keats the artist. Tell us about Keats the friend.

AM: Ezra knew so much about many things, especially art. At the time he was living in an apartment house called The Picasso and I thought, “how fitting!” [laughs] So I’d go over there to visit him in his studio—he loved his studio. He was always working! I never met anyone who worked so hard as Ezra. Sometimes we’d go to museums. It was not only a treat to go to museums with him, but an illuminating experience.  I always liked art and I grew to really appreciate a painting and what to look for, with different artists—why the artist chose this, and with what technique. I learned a lot from these art jaunts.

After the fabulous success of [The Snowy Day], we celebrated a lot. Of course we celebrated the publication of our book, too. I remember him enjoying his success and being humble about it, too. We were both politically engaged and we talked for hours about civil rights, activism and justice. He had a great sense of humor. We also loved to gossip and we shared publishing news and the highs and lows of our profession. We remained friends [after I married my husband, Marty Scheiner] and the three of us had dinner often. Sometimes he would bring a date and he always called the next day to hear what I thought.

EC: What’s your favorite memory of Keats?

AM: My favorite memory. I wish I had kept a journal 50 years ago! I do remember when we once went on the Staten Island Ferry, we were so busy talking that we forgot to get off!

EC: As you know, Keats’s character Peter in The Snowy Day was a great milestone in regards to racial representation in children’s books. Like Keats, you also wrote about African-Americans at the height of the American civil rights movement: Wanted Dead or Alive: The True Story of Harriet Tubman (1965), and Black is Beautiful (1969). Can you talk about the initiative to do so? Can you describe the experience of writing about/for Africans-Americans in the 1960s?

AM: When I first met Ezra, a few of us—editors and writers—had gotten together and we talked about just this problem: that there were not enough books representing minority groups. Ezra came to one of our meetings.  Later, our group became the founders of the influential Council on Interracial Books for Children. We would go to publishers, to make them more aware of that there should be for children a fair representation of the population in America. And more and more black writers came in too—it was great. So the Council had its influence.

EC: Indeed, the CIBC did very important work. Can you tell us about your books?

AM: In 1964, I wrote Wanted: Dead or Alive about Harriet Tubman because she had great courage, and was a true hero. I love writing about women—I still think there are not enough books about women heroes. Children don’t say the word “hero” anymore—they say “idol.” [laughs] But she was my hero. She escaped slavery and then, risking her life many times, she returned to plantations to free hundreds of other slaves. I wanted all children to have a book about a hero that they could read by themselves.

I was so sad and so angry when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. I went to a rally in Central Park and heard grown people cry. “Black is beautiful, baby. Know it. Feel it,” one man shouted to the crowd. And I knew it. And I felt it. I stayed up all night writing a poem of all the beautiful images I could think of about blackness. The poem became Black is Beautiful, published in 1969. It was illustrated with Hope Wurmfeld’s poignant photographs. Hope and I are close friends. In my new website, which will be launched soon, I write about friends who have illustrated my books (www.annmcgovern.com).

EC: Being white, and working for these civil rights, did you ever experience any kind of criticism from the white community or black community for your efforts?

AM: No! I used to get fan mail from people who assumed I was black after Wanted Dead or Alive and Black is Beautiful.

EC: Keats commented that many people thought he was black too because of The Snowy Day.

AM: Well there weren’t African-American’s writing, but I think Ezra’s Snowy Day allowed them to start. And they made such beautiful books—John Steptoe’s Stevie, and that was followed by so many wonderful books.

EC: There was an article published by critic Nancy Larrick in 1965 called “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” and she attacked Keats for not identifying the character Peter as black in the text. Do you recall the Nancy Larrick incident?

AM: I do. At the time I had moved to Europe for a bit, so I don’t remember talking to him [Ezra] about it, but I was horrified by what she said. How could she think this? And Ezra’s reason for doing it was, here’s a child doing normal things. Why not [have him be black]? What’s the big deal?

EC: What do you think was Keats’s greatest strength as a children’s book author and illustrator?

AM: Ezra’s greatest strength was his strong belief that children’s books should reflect all people. His plots came from his own life — from ordinary moments that transcended to a specialness, which all children can relate to and which are timeless. As a painter and a collagist, he was unique and wonderful. A genius. His books will delight children for generations to come.

EC: Personally, what is your favorite Ezra Jack Keats book, and why?

AM: My favorite book is Whistle for Willie. Why? It’s a wonderful book and Ezra dedicated it to me.

EC: So that’s who “Ann” is!

AM: Yes, that’s me! [laughs]

EC: Thank you, Ms. McGovern, for taking the time to share your wonderful memories with us.

AM: Thank you, Emily, for letting me be a part of this fabulous exhibition. And thank you, Ezra, for our friendship.

Related Links

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats

Exhibition Programs and Events