'The Snowy Day' celebrates its 50th anniversary(Read article summary)
Fifty years after the publication of 'The Snowy Day' with its young African American protagonist, there's still a surprising lack of diversity in children's books.
In 1962, a little boy named Peter woke up to a world full of snow. Putting on an orange snowsuit, the little boy ran outside: âCrunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow.â Thus beginsÂ The Snowy Day, the 1962 picture book written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. This March marks the 50th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal-winning story that has enchanted readers for decades.
Peterâs wondrous day full of snow angels and snowballs is something so many children can relate to. Peter is also African American. And with this quiet, yet significant illustrative decision, made in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Keatsâs book became the first full-color, mainstream picture book to feature a black boy as the main character.
A critical â if not uncontroversial â success, Keats received letters from fans across the country, including the poet Langston Hughes, who wrote that he wished he had some grandchildren to give the story to. One reviewer inÂ The Baltimore SunÂ commented, âThe fact that the artist has pictured Peter as a Negro child, quite without making any particular point of it, is a pleasant surprise.â
The character of Peter was based off a set of photos clipped from a 1940 issue ofÂ LifeÂ magazine. For 22 years, Keats kept those photos on his wall, hoping to be asked to illustrate a book about such a boy. But it wasnât until he decided finally to write a book himself was he able to use them.
Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, is careful to point out Keats wasnât trying to make a big statement.Â
âHe made the hero black, because he was there,â Pope said. âEzra grew up in a city where as we know there is the broadest range of humanity. And so this boy was there, and so he put him in the book. It wasnât anything really more complicated than that.âÂ
Pope was 10 years old whenÂ The Snowy DayÂ first came out. The daughter of Keatsâ boyhood best friend, she said she took for granted the work of her Uncle Ezra for many years â until she had children. âAnd then I understood,â she said. As head of the foundation, Pope has devoted her life to using the late illustratorâs royalties to promote and support the work of librarians, teachers and aspiring artists who continue in the tradition of Keats.
In particular, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer and New Illustrator Awards, announced annually in April, embody this commitment. The awards celebrate âpeople at the beginning of their careers, creating beautiful books, about children of every sort, so that children of every sort can see themselves in the book,â Pope said. âItâs very important that these not be cause books. They are books that say, this is a great story. Itâs not that weâre all equal, itâs not that weâre all the same. We just are.âÂ
Keatsâ work has also been cited as the inspiration behind some of todayâs most decorated authors and illustrators. Bryan Collier, whose intricate watercolor and collage creations have been honored with multiple Caldecott Medals and Coretta Scott King Awards, as well as an Ezra Jack Keats Award, remembers his mother bringing home a copy ofÂ The Snowy DayÂ when he was just four or five years old.
âI donât know what it was,â Collier said, âbut when I saw that boy Peter, he looked like me. I was like, Wow!â
Growing up as the youngest of six during the often snowy winters of Maryland, Collier said he knew exactly how Peter felt watching the âbig boysâ having their snow ball fights.Â The Snowy DayÂ had subconsciously planted a seed inside of him, Collier said. For 10 years that seed waited, while Collier dreamed of playing professional basketball like the great Dr. J. But one day the 15-year old hoops fan stumbled into a freshman art class, and the seed was finally ignited. âIt was an impact, it was visceral. You just feel it,â he said.â
Just like the feeling of that first art class, Collier said America felt a bit of a spark with the publishing of the landmark picture book. âI think it put so much greatness into the world, a sense of diversity,â he said. âIt unveiled something that was always there. The jolt was that the rest of the world, the publishing world, didnât get it. They didnât really get it until they saw it.â
The Snowy DayÂ was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1963, the same year that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his iconic âI Have a Dream Speechâ from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
âThis was a very difficult time in America,â Pope said. âIt was a time of the real strengthening, the emerging of the Civil Rights movement as a truly strong movement.â
But nearly a half-century later, a serious void continues to exist in the world of childrenâs literature. In terms of minority representation, thereâs definitely still work to be done, Collier said.Â
As the director of the Cooperative Childrenâs Book Center at the University Wisconsin-Madisonâs School of Education, Kathleen Horning has been keeping track of such representation since the mid-1980s.Â
Out of all the 2,500 trade books published for children and teens by trade presses in 1985, Horning and the CCBC were shocked to find only 18 were written or illustrated by African Americans. âEven publishers were surprised the number was so low,â Horning said. âThe only people who werenât surprised were African American parents and teachers, who didnât find it at all surprising.â
In 1995, the CCBC found that out of 4,500 total books published, only 100 books written by African Americans, and 167 written about (without taking into account any probable overlap). And thereâs been little statistical change since. Books written by and about other minority groups are even harder to find.
âSince really the early 90s, the number has really stagnated,â Horning said. Even when you can find books featuring African American characters, they generally fall into two specific categories, she said: historical narratives from the 19th century, or stories about Civil Rights leaders.
âItâs very hard to find books about contemporary African American children, especially for childrenâs books, especially for young children,â Horning said. âBoys are the biggest challenge. So a book likeÂ The Snowy DayÂ Â would still be unusual today, unfortunately. It would still would stand out, for the simple fact that itâs about a contemporary African American boy, a timeless story, with an African American representing a boy any child could identify with.â
The problem is not a decrease in demand, Horning said. In fact, anecdotally she believes itâs increasing. The problem now stems more from a business, rather than sociological, perspective.Â
âIt used to be that schools and libraries were a bigger force, but with cuts to funding, they donât have the buying power the had 20 years ago,â Horning said. âThe influence is on what will sell in the bookstore. And that can have an impact on what gets published.â
Barring a surprise re-funding of public libraries, Horning said people need to advocate with their wallets. âBuy the books,â she said. âProve the people who are saying black books donât sell wrong.â
One person who certainly wouldnât mind such a consumer resurgence is Cheryl Hudson, a mother, author, and the co-founder of Just Us Books, a small New Jersey press focused solely on black-interest books for children. Along with her husband Wade, Hudson has been seeking out her niche manuscripts for 25 years. âWe were parents and professionals, but we said if nobody else is going to do it, weâre going to do it for our own kids,â Hudson said.
When the Hudsons set up shop, they knew of over 300 black book stores. Now they deal with fewer than 50. Every day is a challenge, especially in terms of marketing and getting the word out about the specialized Just Us Books titles list.Â
âWhen we first started we had so much excitement about what we were doing,â Hudson said. âSome marketers think the only time people read anything about black people is in February, in Black History month. Which is not true. But marketers are creatures of habit.âÂ
Children specifically need to see themselves in their favorite books, Hudson said, to have that âWowâ moment Bryan Collier experienced readingÂ The Snowy DayÂ for the first time.Â
âAll children love to see themselves, in a book or photograph or even a photo album, itâs an affirmation that you are of value,â Hudson said. âThey need to see themselves in a positive way, not as happy slaves, but as African American children who brush their teeth and brush their hair, who have problems, and loves and laughs and dreams.âÂ
But Hudson is not discouraged. âWe wish it were easier. We fought some battles 40 years ago that we thought were solved,â she said. âThere are little peaks of light. But we have to be vigilant about keeping the word out.â
Recently, some of the larger publishers have also taken notice of the issue. The Childrenâs Books Council recently formed a new Diversity Committee âdedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to childrenâs literature.â Co-chair Alvina Ling, the Editorial Director at Little, Brown, said she is encouraged by what she sees as a positive trend in general awareness of the problem.
âI feel very optimistic,â she said. âBooks about diverse characters are just naturally going to succeed more and more. I think that if that werenât the case it would be more of an uphill battle. But I think everything is on our side, itâs just going to take a while. Childrenâs books backlist really well. The list just keeps growing and growing."Â
AfterÂ The Snowy DayâsÂ publication, Ezra Jack Keats experienced his share of critics, despite its general popularity. âI think various people were very worried their voice was being co-opted,â Deborah Pope said.
Eventually, however, time brought understanding.
âThe people who criticized him calmed down, because they saw the book was doing a good thing, not a bad thing. That it was being embraced across ethnic and social lines. And that it was bringing joy to the lives of many children,â she saidÂ
Translated into at least 10 languages,Â The Snowy DayÂ continues this mission to this day. âBecause,â Pope explained, as anyone whoâs ever brought home a snowball could tell you, âultimately there is no color to put on childrenâs experience of snow.â
Meredith Bennett-Smith is a Monitor correspondent.