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34th Annual Ezra Jack Keats Award Winners Announced

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Image is a gold circle, a seal. In the middle is a child in all red looking down at three sets of footprints, also in red. Below the child is the text, Ezra Jack Keats Award

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 2nd, 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.

The award ceremony, typically held during the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at USM in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead, a Virtual Ceremony was held on June 4, 2020. Sonia Manzano, who played the beloved character of Maria on Sesame Street for over four decades, was expected to present the 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Award. Dr. Randy Testa, Associate Director of PreK-16 Programs, Harvard Graduate School of Education, was scheduled to deliver the Keats Lecture.

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.

Cover of book with a drawing of a child looking out a window at a city scape. Small in the City by Sydney Smith written across the bottom.

The 2020 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.”

Book cover that is a drawing of a dark complected girl in a yellow dress blowing on a white flower. Background is light blue with Layla's Happiness written across the top in black and yellow.

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 Random House)

  • 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 children’s picture books published prior to the one under consideration.

For a complete list of past award winners, visit For information about submissions, visit

About the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation fosters children’s love of reading and creative expression by supporting arts and literacy programs in public schools and libraries through the EJK Bookmaking Competition and Mini-Grant program; cultivates new writers and illustrators of exceptional picture books that reflect the experience of childhood in our diverse culture through the Ezra Jack Keats Award, which will celebrate its milestone 35th Year in 2021; and protects and promotes the work of Keats. Ezra Jack Keats is considered one of America’s greatest children’s book authors and illustrators, whose book The Snowy Day broke the color barrier in children’s publishing. To learn more about the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, visit

About the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection

The de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at The University of Southern Mississippi is one of North America’s leading research centers in the field of children’s literature. The Collection holds the original manuscripts and illustrations of more than 1,400 authors and illustrators, as well as 180,000+ mostly American and British published books dating back to 1530. Since 1985, the de Grummond Collection has been the home of the Ezra Jack Keats Archive, which includes manuscripts, typescripts, sketches, dummies, illustrations and proofs for Ezra Jack Keats’ books. For more about the de Grummond, visit

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