The Legacy of the Beloved Picture Book
by Alexie Basil
Read these interesting facts about The Snowy Day to learn more about its cultural, historical, and literary impact. Share what you learn with your students to deepen their reading experience!
The Snowy Day has been a kid, family, and teacher favorite for more than half a century! But did you know its legacy goes far beyond the page?
This week, we were super-excited to learn more about the impact Ezra Jack Keats’s beloved picture book has had throughout the years—from when it was originally published in 1962 all the way to today. Read on to discover some fun facts about this Caldecott Medal–winning classic.
Peter was the first African American child to star in a full-color American picture book.
Published in the midst of the civil rights movement in the United States, The Snowy Day immediately drew attention from supporters and prominent public figures for featuring a Black child as its main character.
In an NPR interview called “‘The Snowy Day’: Breaking Color Barriers, Quietly,” Deborah Pope, the Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, explains, “[Keats] 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.”
Peter was inspired by images of a young boy published in Life magazine.
Ezra Jack Keats was struck by a set of four photos published in an article in Life in May 1940. They feature a young Black child and show his thought process as he prepares to have a blood test done in Liberty County, Georgia.
In his 1963 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech at the American Library Association in Chicago, Keats explained:
“Years ago, long before I ever thought of doing children’s books, while looking through a magazine I came upon four candid photos of a little boy about three or four years old. His expressive face, his body attitudes, the very way he wore his clothes, totally captivated me. I clipped the strip of photos and stuck it on my studio wall, where it stayed for quite a while, and then it was put away.
“As the years went by, these pictures would find their way back to my walls, offering me fresh pleasure at each encounter.
“In more recent years, while illustrating children’s books, the desire to do my own story about this little boy began to germinate. Up he went again—this time above my drawing table. He was my model and inspiration.”
Ezra Jack Keats used Brooklyn as inspiration for the urban setting of The Snowy Day.
Keats chose to set Peter’s wintry adventures in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. As the New York City Parks website explains, Peter and his friends “live and thrive in an urban world of tenements and empty lots [in Brooklyn], but their experiences—in play, imagination, feelings and friendship—are shared by all children.”
To celebrate Keats’s and Peter’s origins, there is a bronze statue of Peter and his dachshund, Willie, on display in Prospect Park. Willie appears in a later book by Keats detailing Peter’s adventures called Peter’s Chair.
Ezra Jack Keats used a collage technique to create the beautiful illustrations in The Snowy Day.
During his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, Keats detailed the fascinating way each illustration came together, literally piece by piece, through a collage technique using fabrics from all over the world:
“I had no idea as to how the book would be illustrated, except that I wanted to add a few bits of patterned paper to supplement the painting.
“As work progressed, one swatch of material suggested another, and before I realized it, each page was being handled in a style I had never worked in before. A rather strange sequence of events came into play. I worked—and waited. Then quite unexpectedly I would come across just the appropriate material for the page I was working on.”
For example, the off-white bed linen in the opening pages is made of a Belgian canvas. Peter’s mother’s dress is made of “the kind of oilcloth used for lining cupboards.” The snow was made by “rolling white paint over wet inks on paper,” and the snow effect was achieved “by cutting patterns out of gum erasers, dipping them into paint, and stamping them onto the page.”
Scholastic’s own Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of Martin Rising and a Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, wrote A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day.
We asked Andrea Davis Pinkney why she wrote this book, and this is what she told us:
“A Poem for Peter is a love letter to The Snowy Day’s beautiful boy in his red snowsuit, and a thank-you to the artist who brought that child into our hearts. I wrote the book to celebrate discovery, wonder, enchantment, and hope!”
In 2017, the United States Postal Service issued special stamps featuring Peter.
Fifty-five years after its original publication, the US Postal Service commemorated the red snowsuit–clad protagonist in a set of four special Forever stamps.
When announcing the stamps, Roderick Sallay, the US Postal Service Government Relations and Public Policy Acting Executive Director, explained:
“Before this book, children of color—African American children, in particular—saw very little representation of themselves in picture books. And then came Peter. A young boy who awoke to find the world outside his window blanketed in snow, and who couldn’t wait to get outside and play. Through Peter, children of color found a positive representation of themselves, which instilled a sense of pride and self-acceptance. One that said, I both fit and I belong.”
What does The Snowy Day mean to you? We’d love to hear from you! Please share with us on social media using the hashtag #ScholasticBookClubs.
Ezra Jack Keats (1916–1983) is the Caldecott Medal–winning author of The Snowy Day, which broke ground in 1962 as one of the first picture books for young children to portray a realistic, multicultural urban setting. Since its initial publication, The Snowy Day has come to be regarded as both a children’s classic and one of the most important picture books ever written/illustrated. Ezra Jack Keats’s legacy lives on in the popularity of his most famous character, Peter—the star of The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Peter’s Chair, A Letter to Amy, Goggles!, and others. Visit the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation online at ezra-jack-keats.org.
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