The Ritz Herald
Small In the City by Sydney Smith. Published by Neal Porter Books

34th Annual Ezra Jack Keats Award Winners Announced

Awards presented by Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi during Kaigler Children's Book Festival on April 2, 2020

Published on March 03, 2020

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, in partnership with the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), announced the winners of the 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Award today. Each year an outstanding writer and illustrator are recognized early in their careers for having created an extraordinary children’s book that reflects the diverse nature of our culture. This year, the award ceremony will be held on April 2, 2020, during the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at USM in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The winning writer and illustrator will each receive $3,000 and a bronze medallion encased in lucite.

Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation said, “It’s a gift to see Ezra’s legacy encourage and support today’s outstanding authors and illustrators who create books that reflect our multicultural population. For 34 years, the Ezra Jack Keats Award has recognized books and artists that advance excellence and diversity in children’s literature. We hope to continue for another 34 years.”

“Since 1986, we’ve seen the winners and honorees of the EJK Award blossom into the Ezras of today and tomorrow. We see that same spirit and talent in this year’s winners and honorees. It will be a joy to watch their careers flourish, writing and illustrating delightful children’s books that make a difference,” said Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection and the Keats Archive.

Sonia Manzano, who played the beloved character of Maria on Sesame Street for over four decades, will present the 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Award. Dr. Randy Testa, Associate Director of PreK-16 Programs, Harvard Graduate School of Education, will deliver the Keats Lecture.

The 2019 Ezra Jack Keats Award winner for Writer is:

Sydney Smith, for Small in the City
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Published by Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Holiday House Publishing, Inc.

What’s it like to be small living in a big city? Well, it can be pretty scary…unless you know someone who can relate to your experience and is always there with some helpful advice. In the first book that he has both written and illustrated, Sydney Smith tells a thoughtful tale about seeing a big world through little eyes. When you’re small in the big city, people don’t see you, loud sounds can frighten you, and knowing what to do is sometimes difficult. But this little kid knows the ropes and is happy to help.

Smith said, “Winning the Ezra Jack Keats Award is incredibly meaningful. Keats wrote about children and their experiences with empathy and inclusivity. The risk of writing for children is to be an adult telling children what it’s like to be a child. Keats has inspired many, including myself, to simply be a human sharing the wonders of the human experience. With Small in the City, everyone, children and adults, know the feeling of being insignificant in a huge city surrounded by the chaos, the hustle, and intense feelings. We don’t give a lot of credit to children for their capacity to navigate emotions—their spectrum is wider than we acknowledge.

“My favorite moment in the book is actually one I can’t predict—when the reader comes to understand the reason why the character is saying what they are saying and why they are doing what they are doing. The moment the reader realizes there is something else happening.”

The 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Award winner for Illustrator is:

Ashleigh Corrin, for Layla’s Happiness
Written by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
Published by Enchanted Lion Books

Seven-year-old Layla keeps a happiness book. Spirited and observant, Layla has been given room to grow, making happiness both thoughtful and intimate. What she discovers is that happiness can be found in simple things…her dad talking about growing up in South Carolina; her mom reading poetry; her best friend Juan, the community garden, and so much more. This is a story of flourishing within family and community.

Corrin said, “As a first-time illustrator for children’s books, I doubted myself. Winning this award serves as affirmation and encouragement. What an honor! I have always looked to Ezra Jack Keats for artistic inspiration, and because he celebrated ideas and feelings through the eyes of a black child.

“Sometimes authors and illustrators don’t use black characters as the protagonists of their stories because they feel identifying with a black child will be too difficult for a ‘mainstream’ audience. I think Keats, and many authors and illustrators since, have proven this isn’t true. That’s what I hope Layla’s Happiness continues to prove. It was important for me to make sure Layla was represented in the best way for young black girls and that all readers could celebrate each moment of happiness that Mariahadessa was expressing through her poem.”

The 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Award Honor winners are:

Writer Honor

  • Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, for Layla’s Happiness (illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin, published by Enchanted Lion Books)
  • Matthew Farina, for Lawrence in the Fall (illustrated by Doug Salati, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Illustrator Honor

  • Doug Salati, for Lawrence in the Fall (written by Matthew Farina, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
  • Zeke Peña, for My Papi Has a Motorcycle (written by Isabel Quintero, published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers)
  • Kate Read, for One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller (written by Kate Read, published by Peachtree Publishing Company)

The Ezra Jack Keats Book Award Committee

The selection committee is comprised of nationally recognized early childhood education specialists, librarians, illustrators, authors and experts in children’s literature. The 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Award Committee included: Rita Auerbach, Chair; Claudette McLinn, Chris Raschka, Don Tate, Lettycia Terrones, Melissa Sweet, Paul O. Zelinsky, Vaunda Nelson and Deborah Taylor.

Ex officio members are: Deborah Pope, Executive Director, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation; and Ellen Ruffin, Curator, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection.

To be eligible for the 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Award, the author and/or illustrator cannot have more than three books published prior to the one under consideration.

For a complete list of past award winners, visit

For information about submissions, visit

Staff Writer