I’m probably a bit more familiar with children’s books than the average college student. Having a preschool teacher for a mother will do that to you. So it’s never a surprise when she sends me email about new books. This week, the email linked to a story announcing that The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats—a book I loved as a child—is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Aside from being one of the first books my mom insists on purchasing for every relative’s child, The Snowy Day also has great historical significance. Keats included the first African-American protagonist in a full-color picture book.
“None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background,” Keats wrote. “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.”
His illustrations broke a color barrier in children’s literature, exposing children to other races in a positive way. Peter, the young protagonist, is notably colored with brown ink—not in charcoal gray as African Americans were portrayed in books before Peter’s debut in 1962.
Judy Keller, a former preschool director with over 40 years of experience in early childhood and elementary education, said the book’s success can be attributed to its universality.
“I first encountered the book in college a couple years after it came out,” Keller said. “It was kind of the right book at the right time. People were being more cognizant of both wanting minority children to see images of themselves in literature as well as wanting non-minority children to see children who didn’t look like them, but acted like them.”
In the story’s plot—about Peter’s adventures on a snowy day in the city—race plays no role. What children do notice, however, is that their experiences are just like his, Keller said.
After exploring outside, Keats illustrates Peter and his mother as she cares for him, removing his socks and preparing him for a bath.
“Then he went into his warm house,” the book reads. “He told his mother all about his adventures while she took off his wet socks. And he thought and thought and thought about them.”
Keller says it is her favorite image in the book.
“The illustration says one thing and the words say something else, and that’s how the best illustrated books are done,” Keller said. “You just see that (Peter is) in a loving home and that he’s a well-cared-for little boy. And all of that is unspoken and yet conveys a strong, positive image.”
She said contacting a local early childhood librarian is the best way to start building an appropriate multicultural library for children—full of books like Keats’ The Snowy Day that do not hinge on a particular character’s racial identity.
She also recommends The Book Vine for Children website as a resource on books to help young children tackle issues of inclusion and diversity.
Butler is a Wisconsin college student majoring in English and journalism.