In college I took a children’s literature class. I wasn’t thinking about literacy for life, but I learned something I remembered ever since: I learned that children’s books have their own immortality.
One of our assignments was to take a picture book which had been in print for at least 25 years and talk about why we thought it had endured, using text and pictures. I chose The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. The book has now been in print for fifty-five years. In 1963, it won the Caldecott Medal, given to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”
As a Central Texan, born and raised, I don’t see much snow. It still fascinates me. A book about a snowy day? With a little boy wearing a red snowsuit? Yes, please!
The snow on the cover — it’s not white. Or perhaps it started white but it now has pink and blue and green and purple splashes. This is city snow.
The Snowy Day is about a boy named Peter who wakes up on a winter morning and heads outside to play. This is a quiet book, the way the world is quiet when covered in new snow.
If this book were written in 2017, Peter would have exciting snow adventures, but here, he has quiet ones. He makes tracks in the snow, pointing his toes out and then in. He drags a stick and makes a track. He smacks a tree.
“Down fell the snow — plop! — on top of Peter’s head.”
The following page is just white snow, purple toe tracks, and Peter in his red snowsuit. No words.
I assume Peter is young because when he tries to join “the big boys” in a snowball fight, he ends up on the ground, with a snowball exploded on his chest.
“he knew he wasn’t old enough — not yet.”
Peter goes back to quiet snow play. He makes a snowman and angels. He climbs up and slides down. He pretends. He packs a snowball in his pocket to save for the next day (a plan which does not go well). Then he goes home to his mother. Peter and his mother are African American, a fact never stated but obvious in Keats’ illustrations. This story could be about any Peter of any race but it is about this Peter.
After his snowy day, Peter takes a bath and thinks. How often have you read a book in which the protagonist sits in a bubble bath, contemplating? Next we see a picture of Peter sleeping in bed. Bathing, thinking, sleeping — not riveting, right?
I can’t look away.
On the next page Peter dreams that the sun comes out and melts the snow, essentially the winter dream-come-true of every adult and the winter nightmare of every child. But when he wakes up, there is a brand new snowy day. And then something different happens.
“After breakfast he called to his friend from across the hall, and they went out together in the deep, deep snow.”
Peter’s friend was not present in the rest of the book, but now, he or she is there, dressed in a purple snowsuit. Now the snow looks different than anywhere else in the book. On top of the white background with splashes of color are pink, purple, and blue snowflakes. The snow has gone on its own journey through the book — from messy, to stark white, to a few bits of color, to a collage of wonder.
I think it’s no accident that this visual transformation happens in the presence of Peter’s friend. The snowball that he sneaked home in a pocket melted — he can never save that cold, round, firm loveliness. But a friend from across the hall? Well, he can keep a friend.
When I told my husband I would be writing this essay, I pulled out our board book of The Snowy Day, the one we read to the kids. He immediately started reading it aloud, and as soon as he said a line, I knew the next line that was coming. I could picture the illustrations before he turned the page. Unlike Peter’s snowball, this book never melts, not even on a hot summer day.
If we could see each other exactly as the other is, this would be a different world.”
—Ezra Jack Keats
New Book Club
Guess what? Here at Tweetspeak we’re starting our own children’s book club! It’s for grown-ups with childlike hearts or for grumpy grown-ups who need a little beauty and humor and poignancy in their worn-out world.
We’ll start on August 18 with The Buffalo Storm by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Jan Ormerod. That should give you plenty of time to check it out from your library or find it at a used bookstore.
Take this post as a cue as you prepare. Read the words and look at the pictures. What do the pictures tell us that the words don’t? How do the words animate the pictures?
P.S. If you want to read more about Peter and watch him grow up, check out Whistle for Willie, Peter’s Chair, A Letter to Amy, Goggles!, Hi, Cat!, and Pet Show!. Ezra Jack Keats has many other wonderful picture books as well.
And you can stream a 40-minute animated version of The Snowy Day on Amazon Prime. In April it won two Emmys, one for Outstanding Preschool Children’s Animated Program and one for Outstanding Music Direction and Composition. (Boyz II Men, y’all!) This version is a holiday story. It is well done, but for me, nothing touches the brilliance of the original picture book.
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