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W. Nikola-Lisa
Ezra Jack Keats at Play in the World of Children's Books
A past recipient of an Ezra Jack Keats/Janina Domanska Research Fellowship at the University of Southern Mississippi’s de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, W. Nikola-Lisa explores the centrality of play in the work of acclaimed author/illustrator Ezra Jack Keats. The collection of essays draws upon the author’s past research at the de Grummond and recent reflections on the representation of the child archetype in the work of Keats, a recipient of the prestigious Caldecott Medal for children’s book illustration for his groundbreaking picture book, The Snowy Day.
In a style as whimsically inventive and engrossing as his subject’s, Nikola-Lisa (author of The Things He Could Have Been, among others) culminates a career-long love of children’s author Ezra Jack Keats with this indispensable analysis of his under-appreciated body of work. Pulling from his own previously published articles on Keats, new biographies on the author/illustrator, an interview with a play therapist, and more, Nikola-Lisa delivers a wide-ranging series of essays focused on the function of “play” in Keats’s work—not as merely a narrative or aesthetic device, but as “the imprimatur of Keats’s work,” a lost mode of experiencing the world that can liberate children (and adults alike) from the enervating routine of modern life.

Mirroring his subject’s style, Nikola-Lisa cleverly utilizes his “predilection for collage technique” here; nowhere is this method, risky for an academic inquiry but fitting for Nikola-Lisa’s “celebratory exercise,” more apparent than in the structure of this book. Deep thematic analysis, rich with textual evidence, gives way to readings of Keats through “Japanese Zen Buddhism and Chinese Taoism” to a short biographical sketch to a gloss on the psychoanalytic concept of the child in children’s literature. Nikola-Lisa fails to connect a few dots, but his ambition and analytical acuity combine to yield powerful insights on race, education, and American history.

Nikola-Lisa spins gold out of even the most unremarkable-seeming threads of Keats’s work and life. The “found objects” that Keats’s heroes fashion into playthings “exist[s] as a reminder of the necessary—and often frail—relationship between concrete reality and personal fantasy” he writes, further analyzing how Keats’s own “journey into the soul” not only “led him to his own humanity,” but can “speak directly to the child within us all.” Keats’s world comes alive within Nikola-Lisa’s luminous writing, reacquainting readers with one of the great, unsung voices of children’s literature, as well as reuniting them with their own imaginations.

Takeaway: Illuminating journey through the work of a children’s lit icon.

Comparable Titles: Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter, Bruce Handy’s Wild Things.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A