Winter wouldn’t be complete without reading Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (Penguin, $6.99). Winner of the Caldecott medal (did you see yesterday’s show?), The Snowy Day is a classic for a number of reasons. The book chronicles the adventures of one young Peter during a snowy day. Peter wakes up to see a blanket of snow across his town. He puts on his red snow suit, that by now has become almost iconic, and runs outside; “Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank in the snow”. Peter makes tracks. He finds a stick. He makes a snow man and a snow angel. He climbs. He slides. And then he goes home, with a souvenir from his day out. The souvenir snowball doesn’t survive, but the next day is snowy, too, and this time Peter goes out together with a friend.
Peter is a kid playing in the snow, and yet his snowy day has had enormous effect on children’s literature. Keats is know for breaking color barriers with this book. It was one of the first picture books to include an African-American child that 1) wasn’t an egregious caricature, and 2) didn’t focus on race or even mention race at all. Nevertheless, sometimes these barrier breaking books become equated only with that one achievement. A monumentous one to be sure, but the great thing about The Snowy Day is that you can go back and read it, with the past 50 years of American history in mind, and realize that this book is a classic not simply because it broke barriers, but because it’s a damn good book. I get really frustrated with books that get so wrapped up in the ‘issues’ that the art of literature, and, as is often the case, the art of illustration, gets lost or ignored. What is the point of a book that tries to teach a lesson, but no one wants to read because it’s poorly written and badly illustrated? The Snowy Day didn’t break barriers because Keats set out to teach people about racism. It broke barriers because he wrote lovely prose — “He walked with his toes pointing out, like this: // He walked with his toes pointing in, like that: // Then he dragged his feet s-l-o-w-l-y to make tracks” — and created gorgeous images. The snow is white, blue, pink, green, and purple all mixed together, but there is no doubt that it is snow, and this snow has that magical quality of making you wish you could get bundled up and make tracks along with Peter. I could go on and on, but this is one of those books that you read because it’s a classic, because it broke barriers, but then you just get lost in the story and all that matters is Peter and his snowy day.