There are few stories as recognizable and influential as Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. Peter’s adventure into the snow-swept city captures the attention and wonderment of readers at any age. It’s a must-have for any and every bookcase and a story you’ll enjoy sharing for years to come. Here, award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney discusses the remarkable influence this book has had on her, its lasting impact on children’s literature, and her experiences adapting this transformative story to the stage.
I was born in the inner city at the same time Ezra Jack Keats won the Caldecott Medal for The Snowy Day. That year, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech. Weeks later, four African American girls were killed in a racially motivated bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Thanks to Dr. King, there was great hope on the horizon. At the same time, racism’s ugly cloud hung in the air around the unimaginable deaths of those little girls.
In the midst of it all, there was Peter, the exuberant Black boy in The Snow Day, joyfully exploring his urban neighborhood, showing the way to endless possibilities. Though a picture book can never erase a racial tragedy, Keats’s story and collage paintings made the world feel better.
This is still true of many children’s books today that bring healing amidst troubling headlines. Though The Snowy Day never mentions Peter’s skin color, it was the first mainstream book to feature an African American child. And when, like sparkling snow, that book fell into our lives, we rejoiced.
As a child, I didn’t fully realize that Ezra Jack Keats had transformed children’s literature. Whenever I read that book, I celebrated the reflection of my brown-skinned self, expressed through Peter. More than half a century later, I still share The Snowy Day with the children in my life, because comfort and fun always inspire.
And so, like an eager kid preparing to leap onto a sled, I jumped at the invitation to further celebrate the power and beauty of Keats’s creation. In 2016, on the centennial of Ezra Jack Keats’s birth, A Poem for Peter, my picture book tribute to The Snowy Day’s beloved character, was published.
Soon after, I was invited to serve as the librettist for the Houston Grand Opera’s The Snowy Day opera, which will enjoy its world premiere in December 2021.
I remember the day the call came to write the opera libretto. I had two thoughts at the exact same moment – Oh, yes! / Oh, no! The creative endeavor seemed wonderful — and impossible. Because Peter and those around him don’t speak in The Snowy Day, how would I bring him to life on stage? While staying true to Ezra Jack Keats’s story, the libretto expands the canvas on Peter by rendering the language of his inner world and giving voice to the characters who inhabit that world. The libretto’s poetry is a conduit to the human heart — a connection that lets the audience step into Peter’s snow boots and walk with him while feeling his soul’s rhythm with each step.
In creating the opera, we couldn’t pretend that a modern-day mother wouldn’t have misgivings about allowing her African American son to go out on his own. Included in the libretto is the nuanced suggestion that the mother of a Black child wearing a hood would express concern about her boy’s safety. In the opera, Mama, who has a quiet presence in the book, now has an enhanced role that brings the story theatrically alive. The kids in Peter’s life, who we meet briefly in The Snowy Day, are also vibrant characters.
Ezra Jack Keats was a master at depicting Black and brown children, from all walks of life. The very essence of The Snowy Day is expressed through the power of snow’s equality. Snow doesn’t care where you live or what color you are. It loves everyone the same. So do books! That’s why The Snowy Day has stood the test of time and continues to bring joy to children everywhere.