A Poem for Peter: A Lyrical Illustrated Tribute to Ezra Jack Keats and the Making of the First Mainstream Children’s Book Starring a Black Child
By Maria Popova
The year was 1962 — the year The Beatles auditioned for the first major record label and were rejected, the year a NASA probe shot for the Moon and missed it by 22,000 miles, the year my mother was born. That year — a decade after the young Ronald McNair fought segregation at the public library, amid stacks of books with no children who looked like him, before becoming the second black human to launch into the cosmos — Ezra Jack Keats (March 11, 1916–May 6, 1983) published The Snowy Day — the first mainstream children’s book featuring a black child as the protagonist: the almost unbearably adorable, red-hooded, buoyant-spirited Peter, savoring the quintessential joy of a child’s first innocent encounter with snow.
Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz on American soil at the peak of WWI into a family of immigrant Polish Jews, had changed his name during WWII to apply for jobs when many want ads thundered “No Jews Need Apply.” He had grown up in the poorest parts of Brooklyn, had lost his father the day before his high school graduation, and had spent his life making an improbable, barely sustainable, and, for its time and place, rather countercultural living as an artist: he painted for local businesses in the third grade; he made WPA murals in the wake of the Great Depression; he illustrated Marvel Comics backgrounds. In the gloaming hour of his thirties, when he began illustrating children’s books for other authors, Keats was troubled by how the monochrome imagination of mainstream publishing failed to represent the human panoply that colored the Brooklyn of his own childhood.
When he finally earned the opportunity to write and illustrate a book of his own, he pulled down the LIFE Magazine cutout pinned above his drawing table, which had traveled with him from studio to studio for two decades — a sequence of four photographs depicting a sweet black toddler as he receives a blood test, clad in a miniature coat and scarf, his body emanating that half-impish, half-unsteady loveliness of just learning to master gravity, his radiant face a Shakespearean theater of emotional expressions. That little boy became Keats’s Peter. “I can honestly say that Peter came into being because we wanted him,” Keats later reflected.
In the process of telling this culturally unexampled story, Keats also invented an artistically unexampled technique, blending painting and mixed-media collage, fusing elements of Japanese, Italian, and Scandinavian traditions with a style all his own, just like the America of his childhood had interleaved such variegated cultures into a shared canopy of possibility.
“As an African American child growing up in the 1960s, at a time when I didn’t see others like me in children’s books, I was profoundly affected by the expressiveness of Keats’s illustrations,” recounts Brooklyn-based author Andrea Davis Pinkney, born the year Keats’s trailblazing masterpiece won the Caldecott Medal — that Nobel Prize of children’s literature, which Keats received with the humble hope that Peter would “show in his own way the wisdom of a pure heart.” Half a century after her own childhood, Pinkney teamed up with Bay Area illustrator duo Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson to pay lyrical tribute to Keats’s courage in A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day (public library) — a lovely addition to these picture-book biographies of visionaries, part tribute poem and part conceptual peek-a-boo game in verse, a kind of imaginative shadow-play telling Klein’s story while addressing the “brown-sugar boy” as he emerges, born and blessed into being, from the snowy swaddle of his author’s imagination.
The story follows Ezra’s life from his hardship-haunted childhood in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn which Alfred Kazin captured so soulfully in his memoir of loneliness and the immigrant experience, to his young adulthood in the postwar years haunted by antisemitism, the unholy ghost prompting Hannah Arendt to observe that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” to his eventual entry into the world of children’s literature — the world he soon revolutionized by drawing on his own experience of exclusion to swing open the gates of empathy in the popular imagination and unlatch the bias-bolted human heart into affectionate inclusion.
Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man who saw you for you.
We see Ezra emerge and find himself — his parents, Gussie and Benjamin, alighting to America on an immigrant-crowded ship; Mama Gussie painting in secret but not daring to dream of being be a real fine artist (“she was forced to bite down on her dreams. This made her bitter, a way Ezra never wanted to be”); Papa Benjamin concerned about little Ezra’s artistic bend (“an artist was a strange, impractical thing to be”) but eventually letting his love prevail over his pragmatic concerns and chipping from his meager paycheck to buy tubes of paint for the young artist.
And meanwhile, the world around the family goes on being a world. A generation after the pioneering trans writer Jan Morris extolled New York’s summer heat as the ultimate equalizer of society, Pinkney eulogizes the opposite season’s equalizer — the backdrop of Ezra’s Brooklyn childhood and of Peter’s story:
But when it snowed,
oh, when it snowed!
Nature’s glittery hand
painted the world’s walls a brighter shade.
Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
Because, you see, Snow is nature’s we-all blanket.
When snow spreads her sheet, we all glisten.
When Snow paints the streets, we all see her beauty.
Snow doesn’t know who’s needy or dirty
or greedy or nice.
Snow doesn’t choose where to fall.
Snow doesn’t pick a wealthy man’s doorstep
over a poor lady’s stoop.
That’s Snow’s magic.
That is also the public library’s magic. Like the young Patti Smith, who found fuel for her own talent at the local public library of her impoverished childhood, we see Ezra discover art and science books and himself at the reference room of the Brooklyn Public Library — a lovely living testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wisdom: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”
As Ezra’s life unspools across the tender illustrations and lyrical verses, we begin to feel the sweet ghost of Peter-to-be haunting his creator’s imagination as Pinkney elegantly coaxes the little boy out in a peek-a-boo tease. We see Ezra immerse himself in the delight of making art for children’s books, “but the delight was all white“; we see him calling out for Peter “like a daddy looking for his lost child.” When his chance finally comes to compose and illustrate his own story, the little boy who “had been waiting to be born,” who had been “there all along,” leaps out as “Ezra’s true jubilation.”
Peter emerges in the warm embrace of Pinkney’s verse:
Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man
whose life and times,
led him to you.
Yes, you, little boy,
were now in full view.
No longer a glint in Ezra’s eye,
but a curious child on a path
Like a snowflake you fell,
right into our hearts.
A little Snowy Day surprise!
Like a crystal flake form the clouds,
you fluttered down
with your own one-of-a-kind
Yes, you, Peter child, bubbled up
in this man,
now free to discover
the truth of your colors:
The here-I-am Red.
The look-at-me Yellow.
The proud-to-be Brown.
In the rhapsodic final pages, Pinkney turns her loving gaze wholly to Peter, to his “black-button eyes and hot-cocoa nose,” to his playful, dreamsome, snow-crunching “path in knee-deep wonder,” before she turns the same loving gaze back to his creator:
Ezra Jack Keats gave all of us a place.
Ezra Jack Keats gave us eyes to see.
Let us celebrate the making
of what it means to be.
He dared to open a door.
He awakened a wonderland.
He brought a world of white
suddenly alive with color.
when you and your hue
burst onto the scene,
all of us came out to play.
flapping our wings,
rejoicing in a we-all blanket of wheeee!
Thanks to Ezra Jack Keats,
we all can be.
As bright as Snow’s everlasting wonder.
Couple A Poem for Peter with Life Doesn’t Frighten Me — Maya Angelou’s courageous verses for kids, illustrated by Basquiat — then find more inspiration and courage for young hearts in the picture-book biographies of other trailblazers: Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.
Published June 17, 2020