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

'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.

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.

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!”

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.”

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. 

“It used to be that schools and libraries were a bigger force, but with cuts to funding, they don’t have the buying power the had 20 years ago,” Horning said. “The influence is on what will sell in the bookstore. And that can have an impact on what gets published.”

Barring a surprise re-funding of public libraries, Horning said people need to advocate with their wallets. “Buy the books,” she said. “Prove the people who are saying black books don’t sell wrong.”

One person who certainly wouldn’t mind such a consumer resurgence is Cheryl Hudson, a mother, author, and the co-founder of Just Us Books, a small New Jersey press focused solely on black-interest books for children. Along with her husband Wade, Hudson has been seeking out her niche manuscripts for 25 years. “We were parents and professionals, but we said if nobody else is going to do it, we’re going to do it for our own kids,” Hudson said.

When the Hudsons set up shop, they knew of over 300 black book stores. Now they deal with fewer than 50. Every day is a challenge, especially in terms of marketing and getting the word out about the specialized Just Us Books titles list. 

“When we first started we had so much excitement about what we were doing,” Hudson said. “Some marketers think the only time people read anything about black people is in February, in Black History month. Which is not true. But marketers are creatures of habit.” 

Children specifically need to see themselves in their favorite books, Hudson said, to have that “Wow” moment Bryan Collier experienced reading The Snowy Day for the first time. 

“All children love to see themselves, in a book or photograph or even a photo album, it’s an affirmation that you are of value,” Hudson said. “They need to see themselves in a positive way, not as happy slaves, but as African American children who brush their teeth and brush their hair, who have problems, and loves and laughs and dreams.” 

But Hudson is not discouraged. “We wish it were easier. We fought some battles 40 years ago that we thought were solved,” she said. “There are little peaks of light. But we have to be vigilant about keeping the word out.”

Recently, some of the larger publishers have also taken notice of the issue. The Children’s Books Council recently formed a new Diversity Committee “dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children’s literature.” Co-chair Alvina Ling, the Editorial Director at Little, Brown, said she is encouraged by what she sees as a positive trend in general awareness of the problem.

“I feel very optimistic,” she said. “Books about diverse characters are just naturally going to succeed more and more. I think that if that weren’t the case it would be more of an uphill battle. But I think everything is on our side, it’s just going to take a while. Children’s books backlist really well. The list just keeps growing and growing." 

After The Snowy Day’s publication, Ezra Jack Keats experienced his share of critics, despite its general popularity. “I think various people were very worried their voice was being co-opted,” Deborah Pope said.

Eventually, however, time brought understanding.

“The people who criticized him calmed down, because they saw the book was doing a good thing, not a bad thing. That it was being embraced across ethnic and social lines. And that it was bringing joy to the lives of many children,” she said 

Translated into at least 10 languages, The Snowy Day continues this mission to this day. “Because,” Pope explained, as anyone who’s ever brought home a snowball could tell you, “ultimately there is no color to put on children’s experience of snow.”

Meredith Bennett-Smith is a Monitor correspondent.

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