Recently, I was scrolling through videos to watch on Amazon Prime with my son. I came across an animated version of the book The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I remember being a little girl and reading the story of Peter, a young boy in a red snowsuit romping around in the first snow, with my mom.
And now, Peter and his red snowsuit are being immortalized in a series of four Forever stamps by the United States Postal Service. The stamp series, featuring iconic images from Keats’s book will be available individually or in a book of 20.
While many of us know the story of The Snowy Day and Peter, many of us do not know the story behind Peter. The Snowy Day is one of the first illustrated children’s books written with a black main character.
Ezra Jack Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz was the American child of Polish Jewish immigrants. When he wrote The Snowy Day, which was the first children’s book he wrote and illustrated himself, he had already been working as an illustrator for several years. He had always drawn children and people of color in the backgrounds, but they had never been brought to the forefront of their own story. Peter was modeled after a picture of a young black boy that Keats had clipped out of a magazine years before.
While it would have been hugely important no matter when the book was published, it was published in 1962. Civil Rights was a large topic of discussion in the United States as black people fought (and continue to fight) for equal rights.
By choosing to make Peter black, Keats knew that he was giving a voice to the voiceless. At the time, there were no positive depictions of black people in popular culture. Contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the highly revered man he is now. This book was released one year before he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Nightly, little black children were seeing their people being sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by vicious police dogs for peacefully protesting racial injustice. So a book like The Snowy Day was desperately needed for children who were told by society that they were less-than.
Children take notice of images. That’s what picture books were made for. Black kids needed to see a book where all the characters in the story look like them, not necessarily a book where the text is telling them what they already know. By seeing Peter in the pages of The Snowy Day, black kids saw themselves. Representation matters.
Keats didn’t write the book for adults; he wrote the book for children. “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,'” said Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats foundation in an interview with NPR in 2012. “These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves.” Peter was the focus of several later books by Keats, including Whistles for Willie.
It’s been 55 years since The Snowy Day was published, and while black Americans have made some progress, we’re still fighting for a seat at the table, especially in the publishing world. Though there have been several prominent books for children and young adults with black main characters, the amount of books for children of color, especially those by authors of color, is still lacking.
We still have a long way to go, but none of it would have happened without Peter and his red snowsuit. What a great way to honor a classic piece of literature. The commemorative stamps will be available for sale starting on October 4, but you can pre-order online.