Born to poor Polish-Jewish immigrants, Keats enjoyed art from an early age. He was very creative, creating works of art from scraps of wood, cloth, and paper. While Keats’ father attempted to discourage him from the difficult life of an artist, he also occasionally brought him home tubes of paint.
Keats spent a good amount of time at the local library learning about art. He also found some comfort in his school art classes. In junior high he received a medal for drawing that he kept for the rest of his life. He went on to win a national contest in high school for an oil painting and was honored for excellence in art upon graduation.
After the war, Keats spent some time in Paris. When he returned to New York, he worked as a commercial artist, with his illustrations appearing in Reader’s Digest, The New York Times Book Review, and Collier’s. Keats also produced the artwork for several popular book jackets and in the 1950s, he exhibited his work at the Associated American Artists Gallery.
Keats would go on to write and illustrate 22 books of his own. His books often featured children from different cultures in urban settings. Keats also always presented his characters with real problems that young readers would understand, including becoming an older sibling, standing up for friends, and dealing with bullies.