Sometimes a book can get weighed down by its cultural baggage, The Snowy Day more than most. In 1962 New Yorker Ezra Jack Keats produced one of the first children’s books with a black protagonist. At first it was hailed as a landmark in publishing, but as time went by its intentions began to be questioned.
Wikipedia reports that ‘A 1965 Saturday Review article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” criticized Keats for not addressing Peter’s race in the text. In the 1970s, some critics argued that The Snowy Day was too integrationist, and did not truly represent or celebrate African-American cultural or racial identity.’
Looking back now, the power of the book lies in the fact that Keats did not make the child’s race an issue at all.
But this is just one element of an important story. The Snowy Day is a ground breaking children’s book in other ways. The mixture of collage and watercolours was a new technique for Keats, and unusual for children’s books in general. The approach ended up informing the story, ‘The idea of using collage came to me at the same time I was thinking about the story. I used a bit of paper here and there and immediately saw new colours, patterns, and relationships forming.’
The setting is also unusual – New York City. Like Dr. Seuss’s Mulberry Street before it and Judith Kerr’s Tiger Who Came to Tea after, The Snowy Day is one of the first children’s books to show that the city wasn’t simply full of dangers – it could be a place of wonder.
And there is something particularly wonderful about New York all covered in snow.