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Off the shelf @ your local library - The snowy day


By Kathy Pillatzki
Assistant Director
Henry County Library System

  When it comes to snow days, I’m as bad as your average elementary school student. There’s nothing I love better than a surprise day off with no plans and nowhere to go, just playing outdoors then coming in to warm up with hot cocoa and fuzzy blankets.

  The first ten years of my career were spent as a children’s librarian, and every January, no matter how mild the Georgia winter, I devoted at least one storytime to snow-themed books and activities. A perennial favorite was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

  Published in 1962, The Snowy Day is notable for several reasons. First is the appeal of the story itself, which follows a very young boy named Peter as he explores his urban neighborhood after a snowfall. Peter makes tracks in the snow and snow angels, uses a stick to shake snow from a tree, and watches the bigger boys have a snowball fight before returning home to his mother for a warm bath. There’s no high-action drama here, just the simple charm of an ordinary day made special by a blanket of snow.

  Keats, along with Eric Carle and Leo Lionni, was among the first authors to popularize collage techniques in picture book illustrations. Prior to 1962, Keats had illustrated a number of books by other authors, but The Snowy Day was his first outing as author/illustrator and his first use of collage.  He used patterned paper, oilcloth, fabric scraps, rubber stamps and India ink splattered with a toothbrush to create Peter’s world. For this pioneering work, Keats was awarded the 1963 Caldecott Medal by the American Library Association for the most distinguished picture book for children published in the United States.

  However, the publication of The Snowy Day was a pivotal moment in children’s literature for another reason altogether. It was the first American picture book to feature a black child as the main character in a story unrelated to his ethnicity. Other children’s books had included black children as secondary characters, or as main characters only when the story centered on their racial identity.

  The Snowy Day was the first to spotlight a black child engaged in an ordinary activity whose skin tone was simply incidental to the story. It was not about a black child playing in the snow; it was about a child playing in the snow. Any child of any race and at any time could identify with Peter, his curiosity, and his adventures.

  In an autobiography, Keats said he was inspired to draw Peter by photographs of a young black child published in Life magazine. “Then began an experience that turned my life around: working on a book with a black kid as hero. 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 went on the write and illustrate 22 children’s books, including Whistle for Willie and two others featuring Peter, A Letter to Amy and Peter’s Chair. Explore these and other Keats works on your next visit to your public library.

  Book trivia of the week:

  Keats himself joked that fans were often surprised and sometimes disappointed to find out that he wasn’t black. He was, in fact, Jewish, but he drew on his childhood in Brooklyn for the urban setting of The Snowy Day.



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