Children in snow suits are a common sight during winter. But in 1962, Peter from “The Snowy Day” was something most children in the United States had never seen before: an African American character who was the hero of his own book.
“None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids — except for token blacks in the background,” wrote author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, who died in 1983. “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.”
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.”
If it had purely been a “cause” book, some argue, “The Snowy Day” would be just a footnote. The fact that children still read it today has to do with the universality of the story and Keats’s stunning collages.
“That’s what struck me: It was gorgeous,” said Laura Ingalls Wilder Award winner Tomie dePaola, who has written or illustrated more than 200 books. “It deserves all the fame and notice it’s going to get.”
Keats’s art has a richness and depth, Christopher Award-winning author and illustrator Jerry Pinkney said, that only increases as you peel away its layers.
“He brought his sensibilities as a painter, his ability to remember his childhood and express it in a way that other kids could connect to, his total love of the city,” said Pinkney, who curated an exhibit in Los Angeles in the 1990s that included Keats’s work. “You take a 32-page picture book — packed into those 32 pages is all of that.”
Keats once attended art classes with Jackson Pollock and was working during the height of abstract expressionism.
“He’s been compared to Edward Hopper: taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary,” said Nick Clark, chief curator for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., where the exhibit will be on display this year. Collage, Clark suggested, might be a way of using scraps of paper to suggest “life’s detritus.” Clark added that Keats had the ability to take the poverty and squalor he saw as he walked through his neighborhood and recombine them in a way that was beautiful: “So there are these exquisitely rendered reproductions of graffiti. He found a way to capture this other beauty.”
Although the 50th anniversary has been cause for celebration, when “The Snowy Day” was first published some critics questioned whether a Jewish man had the right to tell a story about an African American child.
“Carry that to an extreme, and none of us could write,” Paterson said. “There’s no space for the imagination.”
The controversy was “devastating” to Keats, Pope said. He had grown up in a poor immigrant family and changed his last name from Katz to Keats after years of anti-Semitism. Pope says he asked: “How can you put a color on a child’s experience in the snow?”
Winning the Caldecott Award and receiving fan letters from Hughes and other African American activists helped stem the criticism. “It was such a vindication,” said Regina Hayes, president and publisher of Viking Children’s Books in New York. At the time, full-color printing was very expensive, and most picture books were either black and white, or alternated between black and white and color pages. “It was really a commitment. Everyone [at Viking] was completely aware that this was going to be the first mainstream picture book to feature an African American child as a main character.”
“It holds up the need for everybody to be included,” Pinkney said. “But I think, you know what, the art stands up. And good art gets better. . . . It’s going to stand up 50 years from now. We’re going to celebrate that 100th year.”