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'The Snowy Day' celebrates its 50th anniversary

Fifty years after the publication of 'The Snowy Day' with its young African American protagonist, there's still a surprising lack of diversity in children's books.

By / March 30, 2012

A book like 'Snowy Day' with an African-American protagonist would still be unusual 50 years later, says Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Printed with special permission from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

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In 1962, a little boy named Peter woke up to a world full of snow. Putting on an orange snowsuit, the little boy ran outside: “Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow.” Thus begins The Snowy Day, the 1962 picture book written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. This March marks the 50th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal-winning story that has enchanted readers for decades.

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Peter’s wondrous day full of snow angels and snowballs is something so many children can relate to. Peter is also African American. And with this quiet, yet significant illustrative decision, made in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Keats’s book became the first full-color, mainstream picture book to feature a black boy as the main character.

A critical – if not uncontroversial – success, Keats received letters from fans across the country, including the poet Langston Hughes, who wrote that he wished he had some grandchildren to give the story to. One reviewer in The Baltimore Sun commented, “The fact that the artist has pictured Peter as a Negro child, quite without making any particular point of it, is a pleasant surprise.”

The character of Peter was based off a set of photos clipped from a 1940 issue of Life magazine. For 22 years, Keats kept those photos on his wall, hoping to be asked to illustrate a book about such a boy. But it wasn’t until he decided finally to write a book himself was he able to use them.

Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, is careful to point out Keats wasn’t trying to make a big statement. 

“He made the hero black, because he was there,” Pope said. “Ezra grew up in a city where as we know there is the broadest range of humanity. And so this boy was there, and so he put him in the book. It wasn’t anything really more complicated than that.” 

Pope was 10 years old when The Snowy Day first came out. The daughter of Keats’ boyhood best friend, she said she took for granted the work of her Uncle Ezra for many years – until she had children. “And then I understood,” she said. As head of the foundation, Pope has devoted her life to using the late illustrator’s royalties to promote and support the work of librarians, teachers and aspiring artists who continue in the tradition of Keats.

In particular, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer and New Illustrator Awards, announced annually in April, embody this commitment. The awards celebrate “people at the beginning of their careers, creating beautiful books, about children of every sort, so that children of every sort can see themselves in the book,” Pope said. “It’s very important that these not be cause books. They are books that say, this is a great story. It’s not that we’re all equal, it’s not that we’re all the same. We just are.” 

Keats’ work has also been cited as the inspiration behind some of today’s most decorated authors and illustrators. Bryan Collier, whose intricate watercolor and collage creations have been honored with multiple Caldecott Medals and Coretta Scott King Awards, as well as an Ezra Jack Keats Award, remembers his mother bringing home a copy of The Snowy Day when he was just four or five years old.

“I don’t know what it was,” Collier said, “but when I saw that boy Peter, he looked like me. I was like, Wow!”

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