‘Snowy Day,’ with a chance of goofy
By Celia Wren
Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012
You might as well store an icicle on a lighted gas burner as try to find a musical-theater equivalent for the beloved picture book "The Snowy Day." The 1962 children's tale by Ezra Jack Keats tells of hushed awe and solitude: Celebrating a recent snowfall, the book's young protagonist, Peter, wanders alone through a nearly deserted winter landscape, making snow angels, sliding down a slope and engaging in other simple pleasures. Obvious song-and-dance material, this is not.
So it's no surprise that the musical "The Snowy Day," making its world premiere at Adventure Theatre, turns out to be a different creature from Keats's Caldecott Medal-winning creation. Writer David Emerson Toney and composer/lyricist Darius Smith ratchet up Peter's boisterousness quotient and pair him with some quirky acquaintances, including a snow pirate (move over, Jack Sparrow!), an anxious snowman and an acrophobic bird who's fond of succotash. With these eccentric companions, the boy plunges into a few mild adventures and a Caribbean-flavored dream. It's a story line that might strike adult ticket holders as somewhat arbitrarily plotted, but younger audiences will find the production - given perky momentum by director Jessica Burgess - both funny and enthralling. (Adventure recommends the show for all ages.)
Widely recognized as the first picture book to feature a black child as the central character, Keats's classic featured eye-catching gouache-and-collage illustrations. Echoes of its art show up in the musical, which is the second installment in Adventure's "African American Adventure Series" of world premieres. Timothy J. Jones's cityscape set, complete with rich-toned trapezoidal buildings and a lonely streetlight, pays homage to the book's stylized images. And costume designer Deb Sivigny supplies a nifty version of the red hooded snowsuit that made the page-bound Peter look like an adorable elf.
Filling the snowsuit here is actor Alan Wiggins, whose face and body language radiate childish ebullience - a suitable trait for a character who calls himself "Peter the Great," as this young fellow does. Encouraged by his mother (a buoyant Giselle LeBeau-Gant), Peter hits the wintry streets, where he befriends a snowman named Harold (Calvin McCullough) and a garrulous bird named Roberta (a lively Lauren Dupree), who is walking south for the winter because she's afraid of heights. Appearing with a ship, just in time to save Harold from melting, is the growly but amiable Snow Pirate (LeBeau-Gant) who wears a shiny white coat and tricorn hat.
Another significant character is, of course, the snow, which is more hinted at than depicted. There's a pile of white stuff on the stage, and lighting designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke supplies some graceful blizzard effects. And we hear the snow now and then: Smith's pleasingly jazzy score includes chiming sounds that evoke crisp cold. Toney(who's a distinguished local actor as well as a playwright) has also written some lines for talking snowflakes.
The snowflake dialogue is a tad goofy, but the script does contain some gentle wit: "The North Pole or the end of the block - whichever comes first!" cries Peter, who has an explorer's soul but obeys his mother. All in all, the play's humor and tunefulness are less satisfying than the picture book's mood of quiet wonder - but the book will always be there for re-reading.
‘The Snowy Day,’ first picture book with black child as hero, marks 50 years
By Yvonne Zipp
Monday, Jan 02, 2012
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 Pollack 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."