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Groundbreaking Picture Book The Snowy Day Turns 50

The Snowy Day, the Caldecott Medal winning picture book by Ezra Jack Keats, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The story depicts the explorations of a young boy named Peter, who wanders about his neighborhood after a fresh snowfall. The book broke new ground by featuring an African-American boy as the main character, charmingly drawn in an iconic red snow suit. The child’s race is never referenced in the text. “It wasn’t important. It wasn’t the point,” explained Deborah Pope, the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, on NPR’s All Things Considered program. “The point is that this is a beautiful book about a child’s encounter with snow, and the wonder of it.”

Keats, who was Caucasian, found the inspiration for the Peter character years earlier in a 1940 issue of Life magazine that featured a series of photos of a young African-American boy about to undergo a blood test. The images of the sweet, trusting child stayed with the author. “He [Keats] said, well, all the books he had ever illustrated, there had never been a child of color, and they’re out there — they should be in the books, too,” Pope stated. “But was he trying to make a cause book, was he trying to make a point? No.”

When The Snowy Day was first released, it faced some initial criticism from civil rights leaders who felt Keats did not push the issue far enough. “They were worried,” Pope said. “This was a time when the African-American community was fighting for a place at the table, was fighting to be heard … and in the past, when white authors had written about black characters, it had not done well. It was not good.”

Yet, as the book grew in popularity, it was clear that children and adults of all colors and creeds found the story very relatable. Keats received thousands of fan letters from around the country praising his work. “There was a teacher [who] wrote in to Ezra, saying, ‘The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves.’ ” recounts Pope. “These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves.”

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