Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater…oops. Wrong Peter. The Peter at the center of The Snowy Day is just a little boy, and he certainly doesn't have a wife he needs to house in a pumpkin shell.
Nope. Our Peter is just a little boy enjoying a snowy day, and yet…he's become one of the most significant protagonists in children's literature in the last century. Why? For more reasons than one.
Peter, of The Snowy Day fame, was an immediate hit with critics because of how perfectly he and his adventures capture the beauty and wonder of both snow and childhood. With his coverall red snowsuit and little-scientist approach to exploring the snow, Peter is the quintessential child having a new experience. His amorphous snowsuit, bright red but otherwise indistinct (21), allows him to be "everychild." And the way he experiments to understand his surroundings—pointing his feet in different directions (14-15), smacking a tree with a stick to see what happens (19-20), placing a snowball in his pocket and checking on it later (28, 32)—epitomizes the way all children use trial and error to make sense of the world around them.
Not only that, Peter's quiet wonder and gentle approach to the day allow readers to experience it all with him step by step without the distractions of strong emotions, ulterior motives, or subplots. But we can't discuss Peter without discussing his race, because it was his prominence as the first mainstream African American children's book protagonist that set him—and The Snowy Day—apart in 1962.
Some critics—back in the 1960s and today—have suggested that Keats's depiction of Peter as an African American child is incomplete, and that the character, lacking cultural context, could just as easily be white. Even so, Peter is clearly depicted with brown skin, and in 1962 that was significant. Also, beyond his race, Peter is a child of the city. And he lives in an apartment building. These characteristics all set Peter apart as a member of a segment of the population that was not typically represented in children's books, and certainly not represented having everyday, universal experiences.
In that way, Peter has been (and continues to be) seen by many as a groundbreaking character. A character who made it possible for other young, urban, multicultural characters to be presented as full and equal participants in the culture and fabric of America. The adventures Peter has on his snowy day are universal. He builds a snowman and makes snow angels (24-25); he is caught in the middle of a snowball fight (22-23); he has fun making tracks in the snow and engaging in pretend play (15-17, 26). He comes home to a caring mother and a hot bath (29-31) and goes back out the next day to have fun in the snow with a friend (35).
These are not activities associated with a particular race or culture, but rather with childhood. That's probably why Keats was quoted wondering, "How can you put a color on a child's experience in the snow?"
And yet, Keats's choice of brown for the skin color of his young protagonist has had an impact on American culture that is still felt today. Back in 1963, poet, playwright, author, and activist Langston Hughes sent a fan letter to Keats after reading The Snowy Day. And today, authors and celebrities still tout the impact that Peter and The Snowy Day have had on them:
So…is Peter just a little boy enjoying the snow, or is he a barrier-breaking protagonist in one of the most influential books of the 20th century? That one's easy: yes.