Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day Legacy
The story of a children’s book that broke barriers and became an abiding classic.
When Ezra Jack Keats created The Snowy Day, he took a bold leap and never looked back. Keats started his career in children’s publishing in 1954, illustrating books written by authors other than himself.
As an artist who had grown up surrounded by poverty and anti-Semitism, Ezra understood what it was like to be excluded. He was a man who’d spent much of his life in New York City, living among neighbors from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Yet none of these people of color appeared in the mainstream children’s books that were being published at that time. Also missing in works of literature for young people were urban settings. Kids who lived among apartment buildings and brownstones, and whose playgrounds were made of concrete and chain-link fences, didn’t see the beauty of their urban lives reflected in the picture books they read.
When the opportunity came to create his own book, Keats didn’t have to think twice about the story’s main character. He immediately remembered a series of Life magazine photographs that he’d been saving for more than 20 years, for something. The strip of four pictures depict a Black child who is about to get a shot from a doctor. The boy’s facial expressions, attitude, clothing, and all-out feisty cuteness are the inspiration for that special something Keats had been waiting to portray. This was the beginning of Keats’s The Snowy Day, a story set in a city, and whose main character, Peter, is African American. It was 1962. This was also the start of Ezra Jack Keats’s creative exuberance that would be expressed through his body of work as an author and illustrator. Keats was a master of urban orchestration. His books celebrated the beauties of New York City’s neighborhoods. They featured street corners, front stoops, graffiti, manholes, and storefronts. They included Black and Latinx children and families, homeless people, and colorful construction workers.
In describing the joys of creating The Snowy Day’s multifaceted illustrations, Keats said, “I was like a child playing.” And he recalled the artistic freedom of being “in a world with no rules.”
The editor of The Snowy Day, Annis Duff, also pushed past convention. She rejected Keats’s first sketch for the book’s cover, which featured a large snowman. Duff was emphatic. She told Ezra that his book must feature Peter prominently on its cover. Putting a Black boy front-and-center on a picture book’s jacket was unheard of at that time, but Annis insisted. The ad copy and text of the book never mention Peter’s race, which speaks to the story’s universal celebration of every child having fun.
The Snowy Day is among Keats’s most notable books, a masterwork that has become a classic, enjoyed by generations of readers. It won the 1963 Caldecott Medal, the highest honor an illustrated children’s book can receive. In his Caldecott speech, Keats said, “I can honestly say that Peter came into being because we wanted him.” And Keats reminds us that Peter is timeless because he bestows “the wisdom of a pure heart.” This is why The Snowy Day has endured for half a century and remains relevant today.
Keats’s intention in creating The Snowy Day was to break down barriers. He wanted a book that would “lead all children to genuine self-acceptance.” He was deliberate about making Peter Black, while at the same time, seeking to present a protagonist who could be seen as any child, not defined by his skin color. Keats once said, “I wanted to make sure I didn’t make Peter a white kid colored brown.”
Keats succeeded in providing inspiration through his work, and in delivering a book that would become an abiding classic. At the same time, though, he faced ridicule by those who took offense to a white man presuming to be able to write a book about a Black child. Many believed Keats himself was Black, and were disappointed or shocked to see that he was white, when they came to bookstores and libraries where Keats was autographing copies of The Snowy Day.
When asked why he chose to create a story with a Black protagonist, Keats’s answer was simple. He said he put Black characters into his books because they were there. His characters were inspired by the neighbors and friends he’d grown up with in his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. Keats felt they’d always been there—but needed to be seen.
The Snowy Day’s historical and cultural significance remain unparalleled. Upon its publication, it was immediately embraced by educators, intellectuals, and critics. The Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, applauded Keats’s work, referring to it as “perfectly charming.” Today, countless notables acknowledge The Snowy Day’s contribution to their own childhoods and the continued far-reaching effects on children everywhere. Former First Lady Michelle Obama cites The Snowy Day as one of her favorite childhood books, as does Today Show host Al Roker. The venerated writer Sherman Alexie credits Keats’s pivotal book for turning him into a reader as a child.
The Snowy Day has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide. It’s been translated into 12 languages, and is considered by the Library of Congress to be one of the books that has shaped America. In a BBC poll, The Snowy Day was included as one of a select group of stories that has changed the world. The book was named one of the 100 Most Important Children’s Books of the 20th Century by the New York Public Library, and remains the single most checked-out book (including adult and children’s books of any subject or theme) in the New York Public Library’s 125-year history.
Keats was deeply committed to depicting children of many races, and to eliminating prejudice. He himself was the target of discrimination. Born Jacob Ezra Katz, he was the son of Polish Jews who fled anti-Semitism at the start of the twentieth century in search of a better life in America. His parents, Benjamin and Gussie, were immigrants, no different from so many refugees who come to America today searching for opportunity. In school, young Ezra won prizes for his paintings. Years later, when he returned home after serving in World War II, he couldn’t find employment. Katz was repeatedly met with signs that said “No Jews Need Apply.”
That’s when he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats, to circumvent denial of employment due to anti-Semitism in the art field. Keats never hid his Jewish identity. He wanted a job that let him be seen for who he was. Once he had the job, that included being Jewish.
As he became a prolific illustrator of children’s books, he realized that none of the main characters were children of color. Keats made a vow to change the all-white world of content for kids. In referring to his reasons for giving Peter such prominence, Ezra Jack Keats said, “He should have been there all along.”
*This note is excerpted, in part, from the book A Poem for Peter: Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of the Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney. ▸
To learn more about The Snowy Day and Ezra Jack Keats, please visit the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation website: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org