Books
4:29 pm
Sat January 28, 2012

'The Snowy Day': Breaking Color Barriers, Quietly

Originally published on Tue January 31, 2012 10:13 am

One morning many years ago, a little boy in Brooklyn named Peter woke up to an amazing sight: fresh snow.

Peter is the hero of the classic children's book by Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, which turns 50 this year. Peter has a red snowsuit, a stick just right for knocking snow off of trees, and a snowball in his pocket. And, though this is never mentioned in the text, Peter is African-American.

"It wasn't important. It wasn't the point," Deborah Pope tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. Pope is the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

"The point is that this is a beautiful book about a child's encounter with snow, and the wonder of it," Pope says. Peter was among the first non-caricatured African-Americans to be featured in a major children's book. But Pope says Keats — who was white — wasn't necessarily trying to make a statement about race when he created Peter.

"He said, well, all the books he had ever illustrated, there had never been a child of color, and they're out there — they should be in the books, too," Pope says. "But was he trying to make a cause book, was he trying to make a point? No."

That approach earned Keats a lot of criticism from civil rights leaders who felt he had not gone far enough. "They were worried," Pope says. "This was a time when the African-American community was fighting for a place at the table, was fighting to be heard ... and in the past, when white authors had written about black characters, it had not done well. It was not good."

But The Snowy Day became a huge hit. It won the Caldecott Medal, given to outstanding picture books. It was embraced by parents, teachers and children of all colors — and eventually the criticism subsided.

"It was no longer necessary that the book say, 'I am an African-American child going out into the snow today,' " Pope says. "They realized that you don't put a color on a child's experience of the snow."

Keats received thousands of fan letters from children, featuring their own versions of his deceptively simple collage illustrations. Even children in places like decidedly un-snowy Florida could relate to Peter's adventures. But one of the most touching reports came from a teacher whose students had read The Snowy Day.

"There was a teacher [who] wrote in to Ezra, saying, 'The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves.' " Pope says. "These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves."


Keats' Inspiration

In 1940, Life magazine published a short photo essay focused on a little boy in Liberty County, Ga., who was about to undergo a blood test. Keats was struck by the sweet images of the child, and cut the group of photographs out of the magazine. That little boy was the inspiration for Keats' character Peter, the African-American protagonist of The Snowy Day and six books that followed.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

One morning many years ago, a little boy in Brooklyn named Peter woke up to an amazing sight: fresh snow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEVAR BURTON: (Reading) After breakfast, he put on his snowsuit and ran outside. The snow was piled up very high along the street to make a path for walking.

RAZ: That's "Reading Rainbow's" LeVar Burton reading from the groundbreaking book "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURTON: (Reading) Crunch, crunch, crunch. His feet sank into the snow. He walked with his toes pointing out like this. He walked with his toes pointing in like that. Then he dragged his feet slowly to make tracks, and he found something sticking out of the snow that made a new track. It was a stick. A stick that was just right for smacking a snow-covered tree.

RAZ: This year marks the 50th anniversary of "The Snowy Day," which, when it came out in 1962, was the first major kids book to feature a black protagonist who wasn't a caricature. Ezra Jack Keats won the Caldecott Medal for his work, the highest award for a children's picture book.

DEBORAH POPE: Well, the first page is the hook. It grabs the reader. There's a beautiful two-page spread of Peter in his pajamas looking out his window from his bed into the snow. The city is covered with snow.

RAZ: That's Deborah Pope. She is the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. And as she explains, the book brings to life a magical moment some children get to experience.

POPE: When you realize, one, you don't have to go to school, and two, you get to play in this world that is all yours - it's all yours; the snow is there just for you. And you can see that expression in Peter's face.

RAZ: The one thing that is never mentioned in the text, Deborah, just doesn't seem like it's a big deal at all - but in fact, it was at the time - is that Peter - this boy Peter is African-American.

POPE: Yup.

RAZ: Why wasn't it ever mentioned?

POPE: Because it wasn't important. It wasn't the point. The point was that this is a beautiful book about a child's encounter with snow and the wonder that - and the difficulties the - being rejected by older kids, the realization that snow doesn't last, it's not forever. This is not about color. This is about childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURTON: (Reading) He thought it would be fun to join the big boys in their snowball fight, but he knew he wasn't old enough, not yet. So he made a smiling snowman, and he made angels. He pretended he was a mountain climber. He climbed up a great, big, tall, heaping mountain of snow and slid all the way down.

RAZ: This is a visually beautiful book. It's very simple. The art is very simple. It's collage-like. Peter is obviously central in this book. There are all these images that are now iconic, you know, Peter in this red costume, his brown skin against the white snow. Was Ezra Jack Keats trying to make a statement? Was he consciously trying to make a statement when he wrote this book and made Peter an African-American?

POPE: This book - it's hard to answer that question because part of the answer would be yes and part of the answer would be no. Yes, because he said, well, all the books he had ever illustrated, there had never been a child of color. And they're out there. They should be in the books too. And so he wanted to put a child of color into his book. But was he trying to make a cause book? Was he trying to make a point? No, he wasn't. He was writing a book about a child. Some of the criticism that he received had to do with the fact that he didn't mention that this was a child of color and...

RAZ: I mean, at the time, this was 1962. This was quite controversial. Some African-Americans, like Langston Hughes, praised Ezra Jack Keats, sent him a letter praising the book.

POPE: Yes.

RAZ: But others - civil rights activists and others felt that this book didn't go far enough.

POPE: They were worried. This is, as you pointed out, it was a tumultuous time. It was a time in which the African-American community was fighting for its place at the table, was fighting to be heard, and here we have this book. And in the past, when white authors had written about black characters, it had not done well. It was not good. It wasn't good. And so their reaction was, I believe, defensive. And then they realized because of the way it was embraced, because the reaction that teachers and parents and children, because of their positive experience and reaction to the book was overwhelming, the criticism subsided. It was no longer necessary that the book say, I am an African-American child going out into the snow today. They realized you don't put a color on a child's experience of the snow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURTON: (Reading) He picked up a handful of snow, and another, and still another. He packed it round and firm and put the snowball in his pocket for tomorrow. Then he went into his warm house. He told his mother all about his adventures while she took off his wet socks. And he thought and thought and thought about them.

RAZ: This character, Peter, is inspired by a real person, right?

POPE: It's inspired by an image that he cut out of Life magazine in the early 1940s, a strip of four photographs of a little boy, an African-American boy, who has been chosen to receive an experimental vaccine in Georgia. And this kid is like a little dollop of sunshine. At the - in the first frame, he's just beaming out at the camera. He's so happy he's been chosen. He's going to be given something special. He's a little boy. In the second frame, he is beginning to offer his arm and he wants to know, well, is this going to hurt. And the third, he's really got his arm out, and he gets the vaccine. And then the last frame, he's so hurt he pulls his - he's pulled his arm back in to him, to his chest, and he's looking out at the camera with such quizzical pain, how could you have hurt me?

And he, Ezra, didn't know why this series of pictures moved him, but he cut it out. He kept it with him for 20 years. And when he was given the chance to make a book of his own, that's when he realized why he had chosen to keep this picture with him for so many years. It was this child who entered the world with such joy and had to deal with the pain that very often comes.

RAZ: Of course, this book went on to win the coveted Caldecott Medal.

POPE: Yes.

RAZ: How did children react to this book?

POPE: Well, children embraced this book - kids who grew up in Iowa or in Florida - kids who never see snow. And so Ezra got tons of mail from kids with pictures of Peter, of the snowman, of the snow angels. And perhaps most movingly, there was a teacher wrote in to Ezra saying, the kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves. These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves.

RAZ: That's Deborah Pope. She's the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and a childhood friend of the late author himself. You can see some of the illustrations from "The Snowy Day" and hear the rest of LeVar Burton's reading at our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURTON: (Reading) While he slept, he dreamed that the sun had melted all the snow away. But when he woke up, his dream was gone. The snow was still everywhere. New snow was falling. After breakfast, he called to his friend from across the hall and together they went out into the deep, deep snow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our podcast. It's also called Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at npr.org/weekendatc or on iTunes. We post a new episode Sunday nights. For more on the show and upcoming interviews, you can find it on Twitter: @nprguyraz or @nprwatc. We're back on the radio tomorrow with more new stories, music and more. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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