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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.

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Growing up as the youngest of six during the often snowy winters of Maryland, Collier said he knew exactly how Peter felt watching the ”big boys” having their snow ball fights. The Snowy Day had subconsciously planted a seed inside of him, Collier said. For 10 years that seed waited, while Collier dreamed of playing professional basketball like the great Dr. J. But one day the 15-year old hoops fan stumbled into a freshman art class, and the seed was finally ignited. “It was an impact, it was visceral. You just feel it,” he said.”

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Just like the feeling of that first art class, Collier said America felt a bit of a spark with the publishing of the landmark picture book. “I think it put so much greatness into the world, a sense of diversity,” he said. “It unveiled something that was always there. The jolt was that the rest of the world, the publishing world, didn’t get it. They didn’t really get it until they saw it.”

The Snowy Day was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1963, the same year that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“This was a very difficult time in America,” Pope said. “It was a time of the real strengthening, the emerging of the Civil Rights movement as a truly strong movement.”

But nearly a half-century later, a serious void continues to exist in the world of children’s literature. In terms of minority representation, there’s definitely still work to be done, Collier said. 

As the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, Kathleen Horning has been keeping track of such representation since the mid-1980s. 

Out of all the 2,500 trade books published for children and teens by trade presses in 1985, Horning and the CCBC were shocked to find only 18 were written or illustrated by African Americans. “Even publishers were surprised the number was so low,” Horning said. “The only people who weren’t surprised were African American parents and teachers, who didn’t find it at all surprising.“

In 1995, the CCBC found that out of 4,500 total books published, only 100 books written by African Americans, and 167 written about (without taking into account any probable overlap). And there’s been little statistical change since. Books written by and about other minority groups are even harder to find.

“Since really the early 90s, the number has really stagnated,” Horning said. Even when you can find books featuring African American characters, they generally fall into two specific categories, she said: historical narratives from the 19th century, or stories about Civil Rights leaders.

“It’s very hard to find books about contemporary African American children, especially for children’s books, especially for young children,” Horning said. “Boys are the biggest challenge. So a book like The Snowy Day  would still be unusual today, unfortunately. It would still would stand out, for the simple fact that it’s about a contemporary African American boy, a timeless story, with an African American representing a boy any child could identify with.”

The problem is not a decrease in demand, Horning said. In fact, anecdotally she believes it’s increasing. The problem now stems more from a business, rather than sociological, perspective. 

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