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The Enduring Footprints of Peter, Ezra Jack Keats, and The Snowy Day

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Ezra Jack Keats.

In the spring of 1940, twenty-four-year-old Ezra Jack Keats cut a series of black-and-white photographs out of Life magazine. The four photos showed a small African American boy in Liberty County, Georgia, reacting to a blood test being administered by a public health nurse. Prior to the test, he looked happy and trusting. Afterwards, he looked hurt and mistrustful. “His expressive face, his body attitudes, the very way he wore his clothes, totally captivated me,” Keats recalled years later. He pinned the photos to the wall above his desk.

As the years went by, these pictures would find their way back to my walls, offering me fresh pleasure at each encounter. In more recent years, while illustrating children’s books, the desire to do my own story about this little boy began to germinate. Up he went again — this time above my drawing table. He was my model and inspiration.

The model and inspiration he referenced was for Peter, the protagonist of The Snowy Day, a book that was at first celebrated for its bold depiction of an African American boy, then widely criticized for not being culturally specific, and finally regarded as a classic.

It was the first book Keats both wrote and illustrated, and the first (of many, including Whistle for Willie, Peter’s Chair, and Goggles) to introduce the character Peter and his New York City neighborhood. It was not the first picture book to feature an African American child as its protagonist; however, it was the first to win the Caldecott Medal, in 1963, and now, more than fifty years later, it is still one of just three Caldecott Medal winners with contemporary African American children as protagonists.

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Two of the four photos Keats clipped from Life magazine, May 13, 1940.

The Snowy Day was published (by Viking Junior Books) as the United States approached the height of the civil rights movement, a time that marked sweeping social change in our nation as a whole. The era also marked the beginning of big changes in children’s books, as we moved from the romanticism of the first part of the century into the social realism of the 1960s and 1970s. Keats’s work was a harbinger of change; of books to come that would show a more diverse and realistic world. Illustrator Floyd Cooper said it best recently at a fiftieth-anniversary event celebrating The Snowy Day: “The genius of Ezra Jack Keats was in capturing all of the force, fury, and power of a revolution within the quiet beauty of his art.”

The contemporaneous reviews for The Snowy Day were overwhelmingly positive. Most reviewers focused on the unquestionable artistry of Keats’s cut-paper collages, which were then something of a novelty in picture-book illustration. But what about the other standout element of the book—the fact that the protagonist was an African American boy? Only The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and School Library Journal identified Peter’s race. SLJ reviewer Mabel B. Bell wrote: “It is refreshing to have a natural story in which only the illustrations show that Peter is a Negro child.” SLJ gave it a starred review and recommended it “with enthusiasm.” None of the other professional trade journals — Booklist, The Horn Book, or Publishers Weekly — mentioned that Peter was African American, although The Horn Book did include an interior illustration on the spread following its review, which made Peter’s race obvious — if one turned the page. Curiously, Kirkus didn’t review the book at all.

Nor was Peter’s race mentioned in any of the general press reviews I read except for Saturday Review, where Alice Dalgliesh noted “that the boy’s skin is brown is never mentioned in the text, so it is for all children.” Dalgliesh’s assertion that, regardless of Peter’s skin color, the book is for “all children” hints at what may have been on the minds of the reviewers who didn’t mention his race. Were they attempting to appear “colorblind”? Did it simply not matter to them? It’s impossible to say. Given the times, perhaps they feared that identifying Peter as African American might hinder sales to schools and libraries. This could also have been the reason that the ads Viking Junior Books placed in Top of the News and School Library Journal in October 1962 appeared to show Peter as a white child. It was clearly a conscious choice. Lest we might think it was merely to accommodate printing in black and white, when the ads appeared in both The Horn Book and The New York Times later in the year, the ads showed Peter as black (as a silhouette).

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NYT_display_ad_550x330The two Peters: shown as a white child in the upper ad; as black in the lower.

Regardless of how the reviews and ads may or may not have influenced school and library purchasing, on March 11, 1963, The Snowy Day was announced as the Caldecott winner, guaranteeing healthy sales then and in the years to come. The committee, chaired by Ruth Gagliardo, included such powerhouses as Augusta Baker, Virginia Haviland, and Zena Sutherland. Selecting The Snowy Day seems not to have been a difficult choice for the committee. In an article published in Oklahoma Librarian, committee member Barbara Bailey noted: “On our first ballot, The Snowy Day…had the required number of points.”

Later that year in a Saturday Review essay titled “The Right to Be Real,” Keats directly addressed the social issues his book raised.

We are now entering a new era in children’s books, an era in which children of all colors and national origins are finding their way more easily into stories and pictures. Soon, let us hope, we shall relegate to the past the kind of books, both trade and text, in which an entire people and a great heritage have been deliberately ignored.

Two years later, also in Saturday Review, Nancy Larrick addressed the same issues in her now-famous article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” In what turned out to be an extremely influential and important study, Larrick surveyed the 5,206 children’s books published from 1962 to 1964 by sixty-three trade publishers and found that in those three years just 349 titles, or 6.7 percent, included one or more African American characters. Of those few books she did find, Larrick was often critical about their content. The Snowy Day, still basking in the glow of its Caldecott win two years earlier, was singled out for some particularly harsh criticism. Larrick had issues with one picture in the book that showed Peter’s mother removing his wet socks when he had come in from playing, noting the mother’s large size and brightly colored dress. Although Larrick doesn’t come right out and say it, from the way she describes Peter’s mother, it’s clear she is asserting that his mother represents the mammy, or Aunt Jemima, stereotype. Anyone who is unfamiliar with that particular stereotype has only to look at a few earlier Caldecott Medal books (viz. the d’Aulaires’ Abraham Lincoln and Robert Lawson’s They Were Strong and Good). Keats has always insisted that Peter’s mother was inspired by his own mother, who was a large woman [see sidebar]. It seems it was not Keats’s intention to perpetuate a stereotype, but did he do so, unwittingly? That depends on who’s looking and what they see.

Keats fired back with a letter to the editor a few weeks later that read, in part:

I was sickened by a reference to me in Nancy Larrick’s article. She refers to an illustration of mine, saying, “The negro mother, however, is a huge figure in a gaudy yellow plaid dress, albeit without a red bandanna.” The dress is gaily colored as is everything else in the book. What is wrong with a mother being “huge”? What if she were white?

I wish Miss Larrick would not project upon me the stereotypes in her own mind — or in others. If she sees a figure of a large Negro mother and associates it with a red bandanna, that is her problem, not mine.

Interestingly, two years earlier, in “The Right to Be Real,” Keats had specifically mentioned the mother’s size. He recounted his frustrations with a publisher who had wanted to hire him to illustrate a book in which “all kinds of people were represented.” In the initial response to some sample illustrations, the publisher told him, “Don’t draw the mother so stout in our books. You’ll have to thin her down. It might offend some people, you understand.” Keats responded, “If any group of people is to be pictured as always fashionably thin, with children who never misbehave, and all of them improbably perfect, we are denying a people’s right to deal with reality and assume the very responsibilities for which they struggle. All people want is the opportunity to be people.”

New York Public Library's Augusta Baker, in a photograph in My Dog Rinty. © 1946 by Marie Hall Ets and Ellen Tarry.

New York Public Library’s Augusta Baker, in a photograph in My Dog Rinty. © 1946 by Marie Hall Ets and Ellen Tarry.

There were many people who wrote letters to the editor in response to Larrick’s article; nearly all were in defense of Ezra Jack Keats, even though he had gotten only a small mention in the article as a whole. One of the most interesting responses was not printed, unfortunately. But the letter resides in the Ezra Jack Keats Archive at the de Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was written by Harlem Renaissance author Ellen Tarry, who wrote My Dog Rinty, published by Viking in 1946. Illustrated with photographs, it is notable as the first positive portrayal in a children’s book of a contemporary African American boy living in a city. Tarry wrote:

I thought [Larrick’s] reference to the plump Negro mother in The Snowy Day was snide and unwarranted. I am a stout Negro mother and my daughter has enjoyed a big lap to sit in and ample bosom on which to lean in times of trouble. I saw Ezra Jack Keats’ [illustration of Peter’s mother] before the book was published and commented on the fact that she was a solid security symbol. I loved her colorful house dress, too.

I did not find any evidence in the archive that Keats and Tarry were acquainted, although they shared a publisher. In fact, after the success of The Snowy Day, Viking brought My Dog Rinty back into print after many years of out-of-print status. The new edition included an author’s note stating that although clothing styles and automobiles had changed in the seventeen years since the book had been issued, the biggest change was that the “Story Lady” Augusta Baker [see left] was now Director of Children’s Work for all of New York City.

The following summer saw the publication of the first issue of the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, a newsletter that would go on to raise the consciousnesses of many librarians, teachers, editors, authors, and illustrators. In the years to come, the Council on Interracial Books for Children would come down especially hard on Ezra Jack Keats for creating black characters without any cultural context — who might just as easily be white — but this first issue included a recommendation for both The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie (in a section called Reviews in Brief: Interracial Scenes for Young Readers). The Snowy Day was also included on the recommended books lists created by prominent African American librarians, We Build Together by Charlemae Rollins and Books About Negro Life for Children by Augusta Baker. In fact, Keats provided the cover art for the latter when it came out in a revised edition in 1971 as The Black Experience in Children’s Books.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack KeatsA little more than fifty years after it won the Caldecott Medal, it’s clear that The Snowy Day has stood the test of time. What’s amazing is how little Keats’s pictures have dated in that half century. The bright colors, the use of geometric shapes and patterns — all are just as fresh today as they were when they first appeared. And the story itself is universal and timeless, singular and modern.

Unfortunately, the times have not kept up with Ezra Jack Keats, and, in fact, a picture book with a young contemporary African American boy as its protagonist is almost as rare today as it was in 1962. To be sure, there are many more books about African Americans today than Larrick documented back when The Snowy Day was first published. But of the 269 titles about African Americans counted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2015, there were only eight picture books featuring contemporary African American boys. (Low though that number is, the good news is that it’s up considerably from 2012, fifty years after The Snowy Day’s publication, in which only two were documented.)

One of those 2015 books was Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street, the winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal, a Caldecott Honor, and a CSK Illustrator Honor. In January 2016, after the Newbery award was announced, many people expressed surprise that the Medal had gone to a picture book. While uncommon, it’s not unprecedented. But just as uncommon is either the Newbery or Caldecott Medal recognizing a book about a contemporary African American child.

In one of those happy twists of fate, Christian Robinson had won another award just a few years before, for his picture book Rain! (written by Linda Ashman): the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award. Robinson remarked at the time, “Keats is hands down one of my all-time favorite picture-book artists…It just feels like some amazing cosmic dots have been connected.”

When asked how Keats had influenced him, Robinson said:

I definitely remember flipping through the pages of various Keats books as a child. His influence came later, as I was looking for my own voice in illustration. Keats’s work reminds me to be honest. And to share stories that mean something to me no matter how uncomfortable or gritty they may appear. Most of all, I’m inspired by the way his work represents children of all colors in a manner that is accessible to everyone.

From a 1940 Life magazine clipping to a 1962 milestone picture book to talented young artists in 2016, may the cosmic dots continue to be connected by “the force, fury, and power of a revolution within the quiet beauty of his art.”

The Maternal Figure

By Ezra Jack Keats: a drawing, on a brown paper bag, of a mother and child that hangs in Martin Pope's home.

By Ezra Jack Keats: a drawing, on a brown paper bag, of a mother and child that hangs in Martin Pope’s home. Courtesy of Deborah Pope.

Martin Pope, president of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and lifelong friend of Ezra Jack Keats, on Keats’s mother:

Ezra and I grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, populated primarily by immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy. My mother, Ezra’s mother — virtually all the mothers we knew looked like Peter’s mother, and Louie’s mother for that matter. To us, to all the kids who grew up there, this was what a mother had to look like. It was the iconic figure of motherhood. There was no other shape…no slim mothers. That was the maternal figure. That was what Ma looked like.


Thanks to Keats expert Virginia McGee Butler, who guided me through the Keats Archive at the de Grummond Collection, and to Martin Pope and Deborah Pope of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

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Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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Comments

  1. Kate Barsotti says:

    Could you go into more detail about “In the years to come, the Council on Interracial Books for Children would come down especially hard on Ezra Jack Keats for creating black characters without any cultural context — who might just as easily be white….”?

    I’ve never felt this way about the book, especially visually. A white child might have had the same adventure, but visually, this book is not at all the same with a white face as opposed to a brown face. For me, it would no longer work and would not be a memorable story. This character is who he is for a reason, and the world is visually centered upon him.

  2. KT Horning says:

    Kate, you can look up Ray Anthony Shepard’s critical essay, “Keats and Steptoe in Blackland” which appeared in the CIBC Bulletin in about 1970. (Reprinted in its entirety in Children’s Literature Review, I believe.) In it he compares Keats’ work to Steptoe’s, the latter of which he judged to be culturally conscious.

  3. Ezra Jack Keats was one of the first authors to write good children’s books. That was my opinion back in 1984 when I began teaching and immediately latched onto good literature. Funny thing; I taught in a small community and school with no children of color, yet we all loved this book. Peter was a child, not a black child. We were color blind, because the literature stood alone. Years later, nearly a decade ago, on my first visit to the Eric Carle Museum, the exhibit of illustrators included Ezra Jack Keats. His “Snowy Day” illustration was cut-out linoleum. Yes, he used a tool to carve and cut the linoleum. I was transfixed, as this was a picture in a book I had read more than many times. I think that cemented my respect and regard for Ezra Jack Keates. Since then, I have been a champion voice in reading aloud good children’s literature. Jennie Fitzkee, Groton Community School, Groton, MA.

  4. Meg Diskin says:

    As a girl growing up in very snowy upstate New York in the 1970s, this book resonated with me. I WAS Peter, experiencing the magic of an overnight snowstorm and of snowdrifts taller than I was, the fear of the big boys who threw snowballs at me and our cat, the joy of playing with a stick in the snow and making tracks, and the security of coming home to a warm house with a loving family. The story worked then for a white girl living in the countryside, and it still works now when I read it at library story times to children whose skin color, mothers, and homes may or may not be like Peter’s. This is my “go to” book that I know will bring hushed, rapt attention to a room of chatty caregivers and boisterous preschoolers. To me, that is testimony to the story Keats wrote and illustrated.

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