There are those books you remember how you felt as you were reading them for the first time. You recall with clarity what popped into your mind when you finished and closed the cover. You immediately open it and read the book again. When you read it a third time you read it aloud, hearing the music the words make; their rhythm and flow washing around you like soft, warm air. These books fill you with gratitude for being able to read this kind of beauty.
They reach out to you. They teach you. A Poem For Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of THE SNOWY DAY (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, November 1, 2016) written by Andrea Davis Pinkney with illustrations by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson is such a book. Every aspect of this title is remarkable.
BROWN-SUGAR BOY in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man who saw you for you.
Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz was the third and youngest child of Benjamin and Gussie, Jewish immigrants from Poland. They made a home in one of the poorer places in Brooklyn, New York. Benjamin worked as a waiter in a cafe. Gussie had dreams of being a painter but she buried those beneath disappointment.
By the time he was eight years old, Ezra's talent and desire to paint began to shine. He painted signs for merchants bringing money to the family. But Ezra wanted more. He wanted to be an artist.
His dad secretly used money to buy him paints and his teachers and friends offered encouragement. Ezra discovered treasure in the Brooklyn Public Library. Here he learned more than he thought possible about his world. Here he could let his mind go free turning the impossible into the possible.
When he was in high school his painting Shantytown, depicting the darkness and despair of men out of work during the Depression, garnered him notice and scholarships but fate stepped in. Death came calling. Ezra's father died of a heart attack. There was no graduation. There was no art school.
Surviving on bits of work here and there, Ezra was finally fortunate to be a part of The Works Progress Administration, a piece of President Roosevelt's The New Deal. From there he drew for comic books, creating heroes but something was missing. The missing something appeared in a Life magazine article. Ezra saved this something for decades. From this a tiny speck began to grow.
After serving in the military during World War II, Ezra officially changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. He was well aware of the bias attached to those of Jewish heritage. Slowly a crystal grew with branches being added until the wonderful year of 1962 when a snowflake formed. This was the year Peter was introduced to the world. This was the year when the something missing was seen by everyone. And to this day we are all, yes, every single one of us, far better than we were before The Snowy Day.
We understand the sensory sensation we experience during and after attending a play, a musical or a concert in which we have been not only entertained but moved by the performances. After reading Andrea David Pinkney's words in this tribute piece to Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day, you will find yourself applauding; more than willing to give it a standing ovation. There is a beat in this poetic narrative which is in sync with the human heart. It grows and swells within you.
The blend of fact and jubilation for this man and his work is marvelous. You find yourself pausing and thinking, I didn't know that, before being caught up in the cadence once more. It's a shout. It's a song. It's lessons. It's love...love of a man who
gave us eyes to see.
Here is a partial passage from a single page; one of my many favorite passages.
Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
Because, you see, Snow is nature's we-all blanket.
When Snow spreads her sheet, we all glisten.
When Snow paints the streets, we all see her beauty.
For those of us who have read The Snowy Day and shared it repeatedly over the years with others, the matching dust jacket and book case is cause for contemplation and celebration. The image of Ezra Jack Keats walking with Peter is heartwarming. If there is a place where characters can meet their creators, this is that place. To the left, on the back, three separate poses of Peter surround a photograph of Ezra Jack Keats within a snowy shape. A rusty, burnt orange shade covers the opening and closing endpapers.
Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson rendered
the paintings for this book in acrylic, collage, and pencil on paper, using images from The Snowy Day, Peter's Chair, Hi, Cat, and Jennie's Hat.
Their color choices reflect the historical period of Ezra's lifetime including actual memorabilia. Their layout and design envelopes and elevates the narrative. Some of the page turns will leave you gasping or sighing.
Their attention to detail will have you stopping; the picture of Peter, a lion and a lamb signifying the birth of Ezra, a piece of newsprint with the partial word tenement stuck in a railing outside Ezra's home, dreams in the steam coming from Gussie's cup of coffee and the shattered pathway of Ezra's hopes as graduation floats away. Fancher and Johnson vary their image sizes. They select a single page, a double page or a group of pictures over two pages to intensify the text.
One of my many favorite illustrations is for the entire passage about snow in the beginning. A varied pale blue background replete with snowflakes provides a place for buildings in Brooklyn. The text is on the left. On the right the darkened windows in the tenements make the lamp post light glow brighter. It sits at the end of a broken fence row. A tiny red mitten on a tiny piece of paper lays in the snow. It hints of Peter's life growing.
A Poem For Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of THE SNOWY DAY written by Andrea Davis Pinkney with pictures by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson will lift your spirits sky high. It will have you reaching for your copy of The Snowy Day and reading it over and over and over again. Andrea Davis Pinkney talks about Ezra's Legacy for three pages at the book's conclusion. She also talks about the form of her text in Keats, The Collage Poet. A bibliography of Ezra Jack Keats' books is included as well as acknowledgments and a bibliography of books, websites, research collection archival materials and interviews.
To discover more about Andrea Davis Pinkney and Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson and their work please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names. Please stop at The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation to read more about this title and the man. Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote a piece for November Picture Book Month, 2016. This title was chosen by The New York Times as Children's Books That Tackle Race And Ethnicity. Andrea Davis Pinkney is a guest on All The Wonders, Episode 300 hosted by teacher librarian Matthew Winner. Andrea Davis Pinkney is interviewed at Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb.
Update: Andrea Davis Pinkney is a guest at NPR Books, December 1, 2016.
Please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected by participating bloggers in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.