A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of the Snowy Day (Viking, 7–9 years) by Andrea Davis Pinkney is a loving tribute to an iconic picture-book character, Peter — one of the first African American children in picture books — and his creator, Ezra Jack Keats, author and illustrator of The Snowy Day. Directly addressed to Peter, Pinkney’s poetic text lyrically, and seamlessly, incorporates details about Keats’s own life as the son of Jewish immigrants.
1. The Snowy Day was published in 1962. What prompted this story for you at this time?
ADP: Like many readers, I grew up on The Snowy Day. The book won the Caldecott Medal the year I was born — 1963. For me, as a black child raised in the inner city at the height of the civil rights movement, The Snowy Day‘s impact is profoundly personal.
With the 2016 centennial of Ezra Jack Keats’s birth approaching, Viking publisher Ken Wright invited me to craft a Keats bio. I remember the day Ken called. I was so enthralled with the idea that I couldn’t speak. Then I started to well up. Poor Ken! He’d brought me to tears, but in the best way. That’s the power of Keats’s work. It packs tremendous emotional power for those of us who were raised on his books, and for today’s kids who are coming to The Snowy Day for the very first time. It’s something I call “the Ezra effect.
2. Did the project start as a biography of Keats or “a poem for Peter”? How soon did you know that it would be both?
ADP: I knew right away that I wanted to create a Keats biography that had read-aloud value, with musicality and relevance for today’s kids, and that could serve as a love letter to a character who’s touched readers for generations. As a writer, the challenge — and the excitement — came with how I would weave together Keats’s incredible life story with Peter’s presence as the first African American character in a mainstream children’s book. As much as I love picture-book biographies, some young readers turn up their noses at them. As soon as you say, “Hey kids, let’s read a biography,” they look at you like you’re saying, “Hey kids, gather ’round for a nice bowl of spinach!” It was important to me to create a narrative kids could jump into, in the same ways they would joyfully roll around in a bunch of fluffy snow.
3. You’re both a prolific writer and a highly respected editor. Does that make things easier or more difficult for you when you’re working on your own books?
ADP: As an editor, my job is to hold the flashlight while other writers do the digging. When I’m writing, I’m not editing myself. That would be like doing my own dental work or trying to be my own psychotherapist. Thankfully, I have great editors who see my foibles and gently guide me through the process of ironing them out.
4. Like your text, the illustrations act as an homage while standing beautifully on their own. Did you have any input into the pictures? (We know authors usually don’t.)
ADP: Though typically an author has no input on a book’s illustrations, my editor Regina Hayes and Viking art director Denise Cronin were kind enough to allow me a peek at some of the preliminary sketches done by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson. I was immediately delighted! Steve and Lou have brilliantly echoed Keats’s collage sensibility, while at the same time created a visual tapestry that enhances the text in ways I never could’ve imagined.
5. One of my takeaways from this story is: use children’s books and art to stand up against injustice. What advice do you have for readers — kids and adults — about steps to take in this direction?
ADP: The majority of classrooms in America today are populated by children of color. One of the reasons I love author visits in schools is that kids talk to me about what they’re reading. Since many of my books have social justice themes, these conversations often lead to kids’ opinions and worldviews. Students are very honest. They share their fears, hopes, ideas, and the values they’ve formulated from books. It reminds me that we need to engage young people in conversations. It’s why read-alouds are so important. It’s why fostering visual literacy around the images that appear in books is essential. We need to ask kids questions about what they’re seeing and reading, and we need to listen to them. In the case of A Poem for Peter, the fact that Ezra Jack Keats was the son of struggling immigrants is very relevant now. And Keats’s Peter — his unmistakable presence as a child of color — carries special significance for kids today.
From the January 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book. Read K. T. Horning’s July/August 2016 Horn Book Magazine article “The Enduring Footprints of Peter, Ezra Jack Keats, and The Snowy Day.”