Deborah Pope is the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. For more on Keats' books and the winners of the EJK New Writer and New Illustrator Awards, visit www.ezra-jack-keats.org.
In 1962 "The Snowy Day" broke the color barrier in mainstream children's book publishing. In 1963 it won the Caldecott Medal, the highest honor a children's book could win at that time. Its author and illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats, had no idea what an enormous impact the book would have, then, and in the decades to follow.
The book centers around the experiences of a young boy named Peter, and the illustrations are constructed in collage; the lush, vibrant colors showing that Peter's city neighborhood is covered in snow. Too young to defend himself against the snowball fights of the older boys, Peter makes snow angels, snowmen, slides down a hill and returns home with a snowball to save for tomorrow and to tell his mother about all of his adventures.
Before "The Snowy Day," books featuring black characters were either seen as strictly for the African-American community, or those characters were created as stereotypes steeped in racism. In an article that appeared in The Minneapolis Star, not long after "The Snowy Day" was published, "One elementary teacher wrote that before she read 'The Snowy Day' to her class . . . both white and Negro youngsters would use pink paint to represent themselves when painting pictures. After reading the story, Negro children started using brown paint when painting pictures of themselves."
But when it was first published 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement, "The Snowy Day" was embraced by families and educators across ethnic and economic boundaries. It wasn't seen as a book for African-American children or for children who live in cities any more than it was specifically for children with red snowsuits. And, perhaps most important, it was not written to make a point. The little boy playing in the snow is not there to teach us that black people are the same as white people. The little boy is simply playing in the snow, as all children love to do.
In 1962 this was a revolutionary proposition. I believe that "The Snowy Day" made its impact because it didn't try to make a socially conscious point -- and because it was beautiful. As parents and educators know, it is the story and the pictures that make or break a book's popularity. "The Snowy Day" is a book that children love looking at and adults enjoy reading over and over again. And we all understand that if an adult doesn't like a book, reading it simply won't become a nightly ritual.
Consider what one reader wrote in 2002, after having read the book for the first time in 1974: "I had read many books prior to 'The Snowy Day' but THIS book was the beginning of a continuing adventure with books. I recommend this book to everyone. Mr. Keats has left an indelible print in my soul and for that I shall be forever grateful." I couldn't have said it better myself.
The quote illustrates in an eloquent and personal way the cultural impact of "The Snowy Day." Many people -- including writers and artists such as African-Americans Jerry Pinkney and Bryan Collier, and Native-American Sherman Alexie -- count reading "The Snowy Day" as a milestone that allowed them to see themselves on the page and feel welcome in a world where they had been, at best, invisible, and at worst, reviled. Because this book inspired children of different backgrounds to feel that the world of books and learning was open to them, it helped make clear to the American public the need for children's books that portray kids and families of all kinds.
Today, lists of extraordinary children's books that celebrate diversity can be found on the websites of the Cooperative Children's Book Council, the Bank Street Children's Library, the International Reading Association and The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, among many others.
Unfortunately, we have not come as far as we might have hoped. Last spring, a survey sponsored by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation found that 78 percent of American adults believe it is important for children to be exposed to picture books that feature main characters of various ethnicities or races -- but 33 percent report that it is difficult to find such books. In fact, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Council, only 9 percent of the 3,400 books published in 2010 for children and teens had significant minority content.
One NPR listener who responded to a recent story on "The Snowy Day" said: "I was so grateful for 'The Snowy Day.' Sometimes I feel almost desperate to see myself, my family and my community reflected in popular culture. Progress has been made, but there is still so far to go."
As someone who works in the field of children's literature, I agree.
There is a great deal more that can be done to help foster Snowy Days of the future. The success of his first book -- and the Caldecott Medal it earned -- allowed Keats to create more than 20 children's books over the next two decades. With this kind of encouragement in mind, the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation has sponsored new illustrator and new writer awards for books created in the spirit of Keats' values -- the universal qualities of childhood, a strong and supportive family, and the multicultural nature of our world. The winning artists, early in their careers, are thus rewarded for books that are original, beautiful and celebrate children of different ethnicities -- and they are encouraged to create more of them.
Such books benefit parents, educators and publishers, who are all looking for quality children's literature that reflects a multicultural world. Writers and illustrators should be encouraged to pursue successful careers in a field they love, so that they go on to enrich children's literature, and most important, the children whose lives are touched by their work. This is the legacy of Ezra Jack Keats.