Study Guide

The Snowy Day

By Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day Introduction

To say The Snowy Day is a simple story about a simple boy would be, well…an oversimplification. And yet, there's some truth to it.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is about something everyone has experienced: the wonderment of youth. A child wakes up to a world blanketed in white and spends the next several hours exploring the magic that is a snow day: making tracks in the snow, sliding down hills, making snow angels, building snowmen, and coming home to a warm house. Things don't get much simpler than that. And yet, the way in which Keats chose to illustrate this seemingly straightforward story made it anything but simple.

Published in 1962, the same year that the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi, The Snowy Day was the first mainstream children's book to feature an African American child as its hero. It was a seemingly bold move, and yet it was really the sense of wonderment that Keats was focused on. According to Keats, the choice of Peter, an African American child, as the book's protagonist wasn't an attempt to make a point or advance a cause. As Keats put it, "My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along."

While the book received critical acclaim right away, both for its artistic cut-paper collage approach to illustration and for featuring, without fanfare, a child of color, it also stirred up a bit of controversy. Some people critical of the book suggested it was presumptuous for a Jewish man to write about the experience of African American child. When faced with that charge, Keats allegedly replied, "How can you put a color on a child's experience in the snow?"

And a few years after the book's publication, the Council on Interracial Books for Children criticized Keats for portraying a black character without any cultural context. In other words, the Council felt that Keats's character could just as easily have been white, so while it was nice to see a black face, the book did little to raise social consciousness. Nevertheless, in the publication that lodged this criticism against the book, there was also a recommendation for The Snowy Day in a section of book reviews.

Overall, the acclaim for The Snowy Day has far outweighed the criticism. It won the Caldecott Medal in 1963, earned a spot on the New York Public Library's Books of the Century list in 1996, and was included on The Library of Congress's list of Books that Shaped America in 2012.

And proving that The Snowy Day remains relevant more than 50 years after its publication, in 2017 Amazon created an original animated holiday special based on the famous Ezra Jack Keats book.

Those are no small feats for a book that, at its foundation, really is a very simple story.

What is The Snowy Day About and Why Should I Care?

Because the New York Public Library named it as one of the most influential books of the 20th century—right up there with The Metamorphosis, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lolita—and it's a picture book. So what is it, exactly, about The Snowy Day that has earned it a place among such esteemed company?

Simple. Ezra Jack Keats's story of a young boy's day in the snow was the first mainstream U.S. picture book to feature an African American child as its hero.

In 1962, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, that was a big deal. And it still is. People had never seen such a depiction before, and though race had nothing to do with the plot of the book, Peter's brown skin was striking and—yes—groundbreaking, then and for many years after.

As Sherman Alexie said in 2007 when he accepted his National Book Award:

I vividly remember the first time I pulled that book off the shelf […]. I was most intrigued by that little boy. A black boy, a brown boy, a beige boy. It was the first time I ever looked at a book where somebody resembled me. (Source)

So, was this seemingly simple picture book one of the most influential books of the 20th century? No doubt. And that's a pretty good reason to care.

The Snowy Day Resources

Websites

The EJK Foundation
The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation's mission is to bring "the multicultural, creative spirit of Keats into children's lives and literature. Find out how they do it here.

New York Public Library BotC List
Check out the NYPL's Books of the Century List, where you'll see The Snowy Day listed in the Favorites of Childhood & Youth section along with such classics as The Tales of Peter Rabbit and The Catcher in the Rye.

From the Publisher
Scholastic's Ezra Jack Keats page offers a brief bio of the artist and highlights many of the books written and/or illustrated by Keats.

Movie or Tv Productions

The Snowy Day Comes to Life
Check out this live action version of The Snowy Day. It has everything from the stick and the melting snowball to the snow coming down—plop!—on top of this tiny actor's head.

The Director Speaks
Find out why young filmmaker Caelan Barr, at age 11, was compelled to make his live action version of The Snowy Day.

Amazon Gets in on the Snow
This 2017 Amazon original is a holiday special based on The Snowy Day.It features Regina King voicing Peter's mother and the narration is by none other than Laurence Fishburne. (34 minutes)

The Snowy Day Movie Details
Cast, crew, writers—get all the deets on the Amazon original movie here, including the fact that the soundtrack is performed by Boyz II Men.

Articles and Interviews

Thank You Very Much
Read the acceptance speech Ezra Jack Keats gave when he won the Caldecott Award and learn about how he created the book, right down to how he found the various papers he used for his collage-style illustrations.

From 1916 to 1983
A comprehensive biography of EJK from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

Washington Post Celebrates 50 Year Anniversary of The Snowy Day
While The Snowy Day was the first mainstream U.S. picture book to feature an African-American child as its hero, writer Yvonne Zipp notes that Keats didn't choose to feature an African American character to make a point. Instead Keats said, "My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along."

Unexpected Effects
The Chicago Tribune's article on the 50th anniversary of The Snowy Day focuses on the unexpected effects of Keats's book, noting that Peter's "[…] skin color plays no role in the plot but was nonetheless noteworthy—and, for some, life changing."

Footprints in the Snow
The Horn Book discusses the enduring impact of The Snowy Day, placing its publication in historical context by including excerpts from several contemporary reviews and criticisms of the time.

Ruminations on the The Snowy Day Forever Stamps
Maria Russo of the New York Times Book Review offers her thoughts on the forever stamps issued in 2017 with illustrations from Keats's snowy book.

Video

A Read Aloud…with Beatboxing!
This read aloud is not only animated with illustrations from the book—it features beatboxing! Probably one of the coolest read aloud videos ever.

Keats's Influence on Alexie
In his National Book Award acceptance speech, Sherman Alexie gave a shout out to Ezra Jack Keats, citing The Snowy Day as the first book he ever loved. (Alexie's speech starts around the five-minute mark.)

Ezra Jack Keats Speaks
In this brief, one-minute feature on YouTube, Keats shows some of his artwork and talks about the individual pieces.

Audio

Breaking Color Barriers with a Snow Day
Deborah Pope, the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, explains to NPR host Guy Raz how Keats's book about a young boy and Peter helped to advance African Americans during the Civil Rights movement…even though Keats wasn't writing a "cause book."

The Snowy Stamp
In October of 2017, the United States Post Office issued a forever stamp with pictures from the famous Ezra Jack Keats book, The Snowy Day. Hear all about it here.

A Poem for Peter…and Ezra
Andrea Davis Pinkney's book about Keats and the writing of The Snowy Day reveals facts about how the character Peter came to be, what name Ezra Jack Keats was given at birth, and just how important this book was for Pinkney. Spoiler alert: she loved it so much she slept with a copy of it as a kid.

Snowy Boyz
Enjoy listening to the title track from the Amazon original animated holiday special based on the Ezra Jack Keats book…performed by none other than Boyz II Men.

Images

Inspiration from a Needle Prick?
This series of four photos shows a young boy circa 1940 getting ready to have a blood test in Georgia. The boy became the inspiration for Peter, the protagonist of The Snowy Day and other books by Keats.

The Author/Illustrator at Work
A great photo of Ezra Jack Keats in his studio, from Britannica.

Peter in the Snow
Here's the iconic cover that has stood the test of time.

The Classic Cover…and a Classic Toy
In 2016 a library/innovation center in New Castle, Delaware used funds from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation to construct this version of The Snowy Day cover from LEGOs to help celebrate its grand opening.