The final in my series of blogs about 50 year children’s book anniversaries prompts a disclaimer in the interest of full disclosure. I was the researcher in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection who sent an inventory from which the editor chose the pictures and wrote the commentary for the extra eight pages in the anniversary edition of The Snowy Day. The editor made excellent choices and the designers put together a book well worth adding to a collection.
By the late 1950s, Ezra Jack Keats* had begun to make a living wage and a name for himself with his paintings, adult book jackets, and illustrations for other authors’ children’s books. One snowy night as he walked home with friends, they began to reminisce about the things they did in the snow as children. Suddenly Ezra said, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a book about this and dedicate it to all of you.”
Back in his studio, he found an almost twenty-year-old Life Magazine clipping he had saved showing four frames of a little boy getting ready for a blood test for a malaria survey. This child he had loved would be Peter. He began to paint, cut paper, and play with collage. To save the publisher money, he planned to alternate colored pages with black and white, but his editor insisted the book should be in full color.
The finished book, dedicated to his friends, was significant as the first full-color picture book to feature an African American child as the protagonist in a non-stereotypical way. It brought further excitement when it won the Caldecott Award for 1962 although Ezra had never heard of this honor and didn’t know what it was. The award came with bad news. He had to make an acceptance speech in front of 1800 librarians! His many efforts to avoid this public speaking failed, but his speech did not. In fact, the official picture taken afterwards shows him looking quite proud of himself in his white dinner jacket with the taller elegant Madeleine L’Engle, winner of the Newbery Award.
By the time my children and students loved the book in the 70s and 80s, they took little notice that Peter was Black. It seemed normal for him to be there. They would have agreed with Ezra’s assessment, “He should have been there all along.” So would children around the world. The book was translated into at least ten languages.
After several more Peter books, Ezra followed with an abundance of other books. Thankfully, he also learned to enjoy public speaking as he traveled in the US and abroad sharing his stories with children, parents, and teachers.
50 years of Snowy Days! A snowy collage picture might be a good way to celebrate:
• Construction paper – check
• Scissors – check
• Glue – check
• White chalk – check
*Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz. His own experience with prejudice in the form of anti-Semitism brought on the name change. In school and as an adult, he was usually called “Jack.” His friends from childhood continued to call him “Ezra.”