Top 100 Picture Books #5: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
#5 The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
The first book I would run to on my trips to the library. Just wonderful. – Hotspur Closser
What is it like to be a small child in the snow? Ezra Jack Keats gave us the answer with this timeless story of Peter’s gentle adventures on a day of snow. The pictures are so striking that I had to check to remember that there are, in fact, words. They describe the way Peter walks in the snow with his toes pointing out and then in, the way he drags his feet and finds a stick to drag, too. The stick is “just right for smacking a snow-covered tree.” Such fine, detailed observations! Peter wants to join the big boys’ snowball fight, but knows he’s too little. Instead he makes a snowman and a snow angel. The snowball he takes home in his pocket is the final, funny detail that brings the book to a kindly close. Because even though it melts, there is more snow for tomorrow—and a friend to play with. – Kate Coombs
For the triangle of little boy back peeping through pajamas on the first page, and for the hope Peter packed into his pocket. – DaNae Leu
According to Keats, “The purpose of the book and the subject matter of the book was so strong that my style changed completely. I had never painted that way before. It turned out to be the beginning of a whole new style to me because I was so deeply involved.” Classic. And how.
The description from my review: “In this book, Peter wakes up to discover that snow has covered the city in the night. Delighted, he pulls on his bright red (and now world-known) snowsuit and plunges into a day of exploring and playing. He makes fun tracks, and hits snow off the branches of trees. He constructs a smiling snowman and slides down steep mountains of white powder. At the end of the day his mother gets him out of his wet clothes and gives him a nice hot bath. The next morning the snow is still there, and an ecstatic Peter calls up a friend to do the whole day over again.”
100 Best Books for Children gives some additional background information on the book. “Today it is hard to believe that critics virulently attacked Ezra Jack Keats and that The Snowy Day was one of the most controversial children’s books of the 1960s . . . During the late 1960s and 1970s Keats . . . was accused of everything from stereotyped characters to having no right, as a white man, to feature black children in his books.” Some confusion continues to exist today over Keats’ race. When I complained that my last Top 100 Picture Books Poll was lacking in diversity (a fact that, sad to say, has only been correctly modestly this second time around), one commenter said, “Wasn’t Whistle for Willy in there? For a multicultural author?” And since Willy is, in effect, Snowy Day’s sequel, you can see where the confusion lies (Peter, for the record, would go on to also appear in Peter’s Chair, A Letter to Amy, Goggles, Hi Cat!, and Pet Show).
Leonard Marcus addresses this assumption in Minders of Make-Believe. “Many readers at the time assumed that the artist, too, must be black, but Keats (born Jacob Ezra Katz on March 11, 1916) was in fact the first-generation American son of eastern European Jewish immigrants who had settled in Brooklyn during the late 1800s.” It goes on to talk about how the year The Snowy Day won the Caldecott, A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery. I was particularly impressed with the Selznick/Schlitz combination of Newbery/Caldecott acceptance speeches, but if I could see any other ceremony, a Keats/L’Engle wouldn’t be too shabby. However, if I don’t miss my guess, the ceremonies were separate at that time (1963). A pity.
Consulting my Dear Genius I see that Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom did in fact publish Ezra Jack Keats, but only after the publication of Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie with Viking. Her May 2, 1966 letter to him begins, “Dear Ezra: Damn it, here it is bright and early Monday a.m. and I can’t get you on the ‘phone. I suppose you are out helling around with another children’s book editor – and I hate her.” Is “helling around” an actual phrase? And if it is, may I adopt it?
Generally I have found that The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature has, in the course of this poll, been insufficient to my needs. Granted, it is trying to look at the wide scope of children’s literature, not limiting it to a single country or time. That said, it seems odd that The Snowy Day would garner only a single page in a 2471+ page tome. Of this book it says, “Keats’s technique of collage strikingly depicts the urban scene, which presents a grim contrast with his characters’ constant delight and interest in the world. This Caldecott Medal-winner was one of the first picture books to confront the invisibility of black people in children’s books, as it provided a black central character – although some critics complained that Keats did not escape stereotypes.” What stereotypes might those be? Writing in the Saturday Review, a Nancy Larrick said of the book that it was flawed “for omitting the word [Negro] in the text” as well as making the mom “a huge figure in a gaudy yellow plaid dress, albeit without a red bandana.” Larrick could not have predicted that the inclusion of the word “negro” in the book would actually make the book more dated and offensive in the future, rather than less. As for the mother character, I don’t think anyone reading the book today would think of her as Larrick has suggested. Sometimes a yellow dress is just a yellow dress.
Eric Carle might have his own museum, but Mr. Keats inspired a veritable foundation. According to their website, “Ezra Jack Keats created the foundation in 1964 as a vehicle for his personal giving. Author of many classic books for children, including the Caldecott-winning book The Snowy Day, Keats determined that his foundation would be dedicated to fostering the talent of the generations of children, artists, and authors who would follow him. When he died in 1983, his will directed that the royalties from his books be used by the Foundation for the support of programs helpful to humanity. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation is now known for its pioneering support of bookmaking and storytelling programs, art and scholarly fellowships, portrait projects, book festivals, public libraries and schools, mural projects throughout all of the United States, as well as emerging authors and illustrators of children’s books.” Better still, there’s an Ezra Jack Keats Award given yearly to “recognize and encourage talented new children’s book authors and illustrators, who, in the spirit of Ezra Jack Keats, create vividly written and illustrated books for children (age 9 and under) that offer fresh and positive views of the multicultural world inhabited by children today.” The full list of award winners is viewable here.
The de Grummond Collection at The University of Southern Mississippi is the sole repository for the Ezra Jack Keats Archive and on their website I found the Ezra Jack Keats Virtual Exhibit. Amongst its useful images is a copy of the photograph from Life magazine (circa May 13, 1940) that served as the original inspiration for Peter.
They also have this photograph from the Caldecott Banquet. That’s Mr. Keats is on the left. Tiny moustache-sporter he was not. Madeleine L’Engle is second from the right.
From the site, they’ve also this bit of information about Mr. Keats, involving the Caldecott Banquet speech. “When Benjamin Katz [Ezra’s father] died on January 1935, Keats, on the day before his high school graduation, had to identify his father’s body. For the first time he learned that his father had been proud of his work. In his Caldecott Medal speech in 1963, Keats shared the experience. ‘I found myself staring deep into his secret feelings. There in his wallet were worn and tattered newspaper clippings of the notices of the awards I had won. My silent admirer and supplier, he had been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship and his real pride in my work’.”
Related Sidenote: Cutest. Picture. Ever.
Peter, for the record, has a statue of his own, though you won’t often hear of it. Yet located in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York there is a little area called Imagination Playground. There you will find Peter and Willie.
They were sculpted by artist Otto Neals and were unveiled in 1997. One of these days I’ll make a pilgrimage to see them for myself. I’m in that park all the time but have never run into them. Crazy!
- Hear some famous folks talk seriously about Keats. John Hodgman, Al Roker, Mario Bitali, and Ben Stiller all take a turn.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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