The Snowy Day
by Ezra Jack Keats
Winner of the 1963 Caldecott Medal!
No book has captured the magic and sense of possibility of the first snowfall better than The Snowy Day. Universal in its appeal, the story has become a favorite of millions, as it reveals a child’s wonder at a new world, and the hope of capturing and keeping that wonder forever.
The adventures of a little boy in the city on a very snowy day.
“Keats’s sparse collage illustrations capture the wonder and beauty a snowy day can bring to a small child.”—Barnes & Noble
“Ezra Jack Keats’s classic The Snowy Day, winner of the 1963 Caldecott Medal, pays homage to the wonder and pure pleasure a child experiences when the world is blanketed in snow.”—Publisher’s Weekly
“The book is notable not only for its lovely artwork and tone, but also for its importance as a trailblazer. According to Horn Book magazine, The Snowy Day was “the very first full-color picture book to feature a small black hero”—yet another reason to add this classic to your shelves. It’s as unique and special as a snowflake.”—Amazon.com
‘The Snowy Day’: Breaking Color Barriers, Quietly
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.”
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.
The Snowy Day is a 1962 children’s picture book by American author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats. Keats received the 1963 Caldecott Medal for his illustrations in the book. It features a boy named Peter exploring his neighborhood after the first snowfall of the season. The inspiration for Peter came from a Life magazine photo article from 1940, and Keats’ desire to have minority children of New York as central characters in his stories. Peter appears in six more books, growing from a small boy in The Snowy Day to pre-adolescence in A Letter to Amy.
Life and career
After serving in World War II, Keats returned to New York and started a career in illustration, working first in the comic industry, and then working for such publications as Reader’s Digest, The New York Times Book Review, and Collier’s. In the 1950s Keats started illustrating dust jackets, and when one book cover caught the eye of an editor of youth literature, Keats was soon commissioned to illustrate children’s books.
Keats started solely as an illustrator for the work of other authors. But he soon observed that few children’s books showcased an African-American or other minority child as the main character. Published in 1962, The Snowy Day was the first book Keats both authored and illustrated, and was a milestone for featuring the first African-American protagonist in a full-color picture book. “None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along,” Keats wrote in an unpublished autobiography (portions of which have been printed in various publications since the author’s death).
Peter in The Snowy Day was inspired by a strip of photographs of an African-American boy that Keats had clipped from a May 1940 issue of Life magazine. “Years ago, long before I ever thought of doing children’s books, while looking through a magazine I came across four candid photos of a little boy about three or four years old,” said Keats in his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature, which he won for The Snowy Day in 1963. “His expressive face, his body attitudes, the very way he wore his clothes, totally captivated me . . . . 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.”
The source for the story-line, Keats noted, came from his memories of snowy days in his Brooklyn childhood. Above all, Keats wanted to capture the wonderment of a child’s first snowfall, a feeling universal to all children, regardless of race. “I wanted to convey the joy of being a little boy alive on a certain kind of day—of being for that moment. The air is cold, you touch the snow, aware of the things to which all children are so open.”
The Snowy Day was immediately welcomed by educators and critics and embraced by the public. The book is noteworthy not only as a benchmark in racial representation in literature, but also for the simplicity and elegance of the writing, which many be attributed to Keats’s love of haiku poetry. The beautiful illustrations also marked the book as a great accomplishment of art in a children’s book. Keats, who was a painter first and foremost, chose to illustrate the book with collage, a medium he had never used before. “The idea of using collage came to me at the same time I was thinking about the story. I used a bit of paper here and there and immediately saw new colors, patterns, and relationships forming.”
As the Civil Rights Movement entered a new phase of black cultural consciousness in the mid- to late-1960s, The Snowy Day began to meet with some criticism. “After The Snowy Day was published, many, many people thought I was black,” said Keats. “As a matter of fact, many were disappointed that I wasn’t!” A 1965 Saturday Review article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” criticized Keats for not addressing Peter’s race in the text. In the 1970s, some critics argued that The Snowy Day was too integrationist, and did not truly represent or celebrate African-American cultural or racial identity. By the 1980s the cultural landscape had shifted again. “How many literary light years separate Little Black Sambo from The Snowy Day?” a critic wrote. “Although we have been led to believe by twenty years of reporting that Keats’s work was special because of his use of collage, it is his vision of the universal human spirit as personified in one pre-school black youngster that marks this book for attention.”
Throughout these debates, The Snowy Day has remained a deeply loved and profoundly influential book. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” In 2012 it was ranked number five among the “Top 100 Picture Books” in a survey published by School Library Journal.
An animated Christmas special based on the book was released on Amazon on November 25, 2016. The special is narrated by Laurence Fishburne, who also produced the special, and features music from Boyz II Men. It was produced by Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions and Karrot Animation.
WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW
Parents need to know that The Snowy Day follows a boy discovering the pleasures of new-fallen snow. Bright color cut-outs and lively language complement each other to create a story that’s both soothing and exciting.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
A young boy wakes to a world of freshly fallen snow and goes exploring throughout the cityscape in this gentle, glistening classic. With bold text and whimsical collages, Ezra Jack Keats captures the delight kids feel in the simplest pleasures.
IS IT ANY GOOD?
THE SNOWY DAY challenges the assumption that more is better, inviting you and your kids into a world of slow, easy pleasures. Ezra Keats is remarkable in his ability to create a calming yet vibrant story, striking this balance gracefully in pictures and in text. His artwork is spare yet the pictures burst with brilliant color and expression. In many of the pictures, Peter lacks facial features except his eyes, but Keats manages, with the angle of his head and the composition, to convey feeling.
The text, similarly economical, is made up of just enough words to tell the story — none of them too hard for a young reader to sound out or for a young listener to understand — and they are vivid words used powerfully, often rhyming or repeating. The result is that kids (and parents too!) can settle into Peter’s snowy world. A bonus in this sparkling story is the African-American main character — an all-too-rare occurrence, still, in children’s literature.
TALK TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT …
- Families can talk about the pleasures of different types of weather: snowy days, rainy days, windy days, and more. Which is your favorite type of weather? Why?
- How easy is it to create fun by yourself? Is it sometimes as much or more fun than playing with others?