A Poem for Peter: The Sto­ry of Ezra Jack Keats and the Cre­ation of The Snowy Day

Andrea Davis Pinkney; Steve John­son and Lou Fanch­er, illus.
  • Review
By – January 12, 2017

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is a clas­sic for the ages. It is instant­ly rec­og­nized and beloved by gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren and par­ents; it is a sta­ple in schools, com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, and libraries — any­where chil­dren gath­er to be sur­round­ed by beau­ti­ful words and images.

Now we have a fit­ting paean to this icon­ic work. Andrea Davis Pinkney, hav­ing absorbed Keats’ sto­ry into the very fab­ric of her soul, has giv­en birth to a new book that hon­ors its pre­de­ces­sor by singing to it while delin­eat­ing its his­to­ry. This is a com­bi­na­tion of a poem and a biog­ra­phy of both Keats him­self and of his most famous work. The art­work, although fresh and new, echoes Keats’ own. Pinkney has writ­ten this book as a love let­ter to Peter, the young pro­tag­o­nist of The Snowy Day, and she tells Peter about Keats and his Jew­ish fam­i­ly as they flee Poland hop­ing for a bet­ter life in Amer­i­ca. They find immi­grant life in Brook­lyn dif­fi­cult and chal­leng­ing, too. And yet there is mag­ic in young Ezra’s life — there is snow; there is art; there are libraries. The libraries, the art, and some spe­cial encour­age­ment are part of a path that leads Keats through the years of the Depres­sion, and his artis­tic tal­ent even helps him nav­i­gate his World War II army career as he paints posters and illus­trates brochures, charts and maps as part of his ser­vice as U.S. sol­dier. After the war, Keats changes his name from the orig­i­nal Jacob Ezra Katz to the name we are famil­iar with, and begins illus­trat­ing chil­dren’s books. Even­tu­al­ly young Peter is born, and oth­er beau­ti­ful chil­dren’s books are writ­ten and illus­trat­ed. Much is made of Keats’ prej­u­dice-bust­ing choice to por­tray Peter as what Pinkney terms so sweet­ly a brown-sug­ar” child, giv­ing African-Amer­i­can chil­dren an image and a hero they sore­ly need­ed as there were so few in the lit­er­a­ture of the time. 

There is an exten­sive three-part back mat­ter sec­tion, also beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and illus­trat­ed. The first arti­cle dis­cuss­es the his­to­ry of The Snowy Day itself, the sec­ond dis­cuss­es Keats’ method of col­lage art, and the third is a list of books writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Ezra Jack Keats.

This book is a work of art that dis­cuss­es a work of art, and is a heady expe­ri­ence for any adult to share with any child. The pub­lish­er rec­om­mends it for ages 8 and up, but the artis­tic ele­ments come togeth­er in such har­mo­ny that they cre­ate an unusu­al expe­ri­ence that any read­er of any age can mar­vel at and enjoy.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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