First published 50 years ago, “The Snowy Day” is a gentle story that revels in the wonder of an urban snowfall. It also was quietly groundbreaking, both as what is widely considered the first picture book to star a black child and in its use of collage, for which Keats won the 1963 Caldecott Medal. Writers such as National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie, who thanked Keats in his 2007 acceptance speech, and award-winning author/illustrator Bryan Collier have cited “The Snowy Day” as an inspiration.
“The fact that it’s still around — and picture books are like lettuce in the grocery store, they disappear so fast — the fact that it’s still with us is something,” said Newbery and National Book Award winner Katherine Paterson, who is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. “It’s so important for a child to be able to say, ‘There I am in the book,’ ” said Paterson, whose daughters are Chinese and Native American. “That’s been a wonderful change, even in the lifetime of my children, who are in their 40s now.”
To celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary, Viking has issued a special edition that includes eight pages of supplemental material, including the magazine photos of a little boy that inspired Keats and a fan letter from poet Langston Hughes. “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” the first major U.S. exhibition about Keats, opened this fall at the Jewish Museum in New York and will travel to Massachusetts, California and Ohio in 2012 and 2013.
Collier, whose book “Uptown” won the first Ezra Jack Keats award, still remembers his mother, a Head Start teacher, bringing home “The Snowy Day.” “It was the first time I saw a kid that looked like me,” Collier said. “At 4, I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what I was looking at. But I remember seeing Peter, and this kid looked just like me. The yellow-print housedress the mom wears — my mother had a housedress like that, too. Even the pattern of the pajamas — my great-uncle had pajamas like that. It felt so real.”
Back in the 1940s, 22 years before “The Snowy Day” was published, Keats had cut out pictures from Life magazine of the young boy, who was being vaccinated, said Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation in New York, which supports arts and literacy programming in schools, libraries and other institutions. He pinned them to a wall in his studio; meanwhile, he continued illustrating other people’s books.
Keats’s book, when it appeared, “was both a social, personal and artistic breakthrough,” said Pope, whose father was Keats’s best friend. “It really opened up the wellspring of his inner voice. He said that the book — as artists sometimes say — the book kind of burst out of him. He had never done anything like this before.”