Why Did I Fail to Notice Race in “The Snowy Day?”
In reading colorblind to my children, I erased Peter’s Blackness from the story
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There is an error in The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats that I didn’t see until some point reading it to our second child. On the fifth and sixth pages, Keats writes that Peter “walked with his toes pointing out, like this,” and then, “He walked with his toes pointing in, like that.” The footprints below the text are angled accordingly. In his bright red snowsuit, Peter stands at the far right, looking back over his shoulder, one of several quiet, thoughtful moments in this beautiful book.
But how could I have read over this so many times: The footprints in the picture are side-by-side, two-by-two. Peter didn’t walk. He hopped. (Curiously, the cover image of the book is also Peter looking back at his footprints, but those are alternating and facing forward, evidence of ambulation.)
Why care? It wasn’t noticeable when I read right over it—and over and over it—to my oldest child. But Peter is a child who notices and reflects, which is much of what I love about this book, so I want to respond in kind, especially considering how loved this book has been—by us as a family, and as part of a wider readership. What made The Snowy Day a groundbreaking “first” when it won the Caldecott in 1963, and what makes it noteworthy on our bookshelves as a white family almost sixty years later, is that Peter is Black.
I had noticed Peter’s race, and I imagine my kids did too, but we never talked about it. What I had been reading right over, and repeatedly, was what Peter’s race meant. Can it mean nothing? Clearly not—it is noteworthy and groundbreaking. Yet I was reading colorblind. Why? Was this what the author intended?
Keats was white. Born in Brooklyn in 1916 as Jacob Ezra Katz, he was the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. As a young working artist, Keats was a muralist for the Works Progress Administration, a background illustrator for Captain Marvel comics, and, in WWII, a camouflage designer. In 1947, in response to anti-Semitism, he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats and became an illustrator for newspapers, magazines, and eventually children’s books. “Then began an experience that turned my life around, working on a book with a black kid as hero,” he said, as recounted on the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation website. “None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.”
Diversifying children’s literature was a cause for Keats. His first book, which he co-authored with Pat Cherr in 1960, My Dog Is Lost!, stars Juanito as its main character, a Puerto Rican immigrant who speaks only Spanish. Of the twenty-two books Keats went on to write and illustrate, seven starred Peter and his family. Other recurring characters in Keats’ oeuvre are Archie and Amy, who are Black, and Roberto, who is Latinx.
The diversity was much needed. In her landmark study “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” published in The Saturday Review three years after The Snowy Day was published, educator and scholar Nancy Larrick found that only 6.7% of children’s books published between 1962 and 1965 included a Black character, even in the background.
In the sixty years since, progress has been made, but, alarmingly little, and only very recently. According to a study by Professor Sarah Park Dahlen, based on data from The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, 23% of children’s books published in 2018 “depicted characters from diverse backgrounds.” It was 14.2% in 2014, so it is encouraging to see the number go up, but for at least 20 years before this, according to Professor Philip Nel in his 2017 book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books, it hovered around 10%. (Nel answers his question: Yes, the Cat in the Hat was Black, both in the visual language and themes of minstrelsy.) What should the number be? If it were to reflect the current U.S. population, it would be about 40%.
Scrutinizing an industry is one thing, but what do I offer my own kids? It’s important to my wife and me to talk to our kids about identity, including race. Books prompt and support these discussions. For example, The Colors of Us by Karen Katz celebrates the multiplicity and beauty of skin colors, centering on a child discovering what color to use in a self-portrait. (She decides on cinnamon; my youngest most recently settled on “peach.”) Other family favorites honor culture, like Bi-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park, which includes a recipe for the Korean dish, and Feast For Ten by Catheryn Falwell, a counting book that features a Black family shopping and cooking.
In raising awareness of others, these books, visually and textually, also raise awareness of ourselves. Another recent favorite has been Bedtime Bonnet by Nancy Redd, who writes in her author bio that she was “inspired by the lack of resources” for her daughter about Black hair. The book begins, “In my family, when the sun goes down, our hair goes up!” In our family, it stays down, so, in addition to learning about wave caps and durags—it’s a resource for us, too—we talk about the care that different hair types require. It feels like part of a good foundation for conversations in the years ahead about all that hair represents, and has represented, in issues of identity.
But back to my question in light of the statistics: what do I offer my own kids—in numbers? Just like not noticing Peter’s footprints, a true audit of my own bookshelf was something I had overlooked.
My study was not terribly scientific. I took my tally by walking my fingers across book spines and pulling them half-way out one afternoon while I was watching my three-year old, and I know there’s at least one other box in the attic filled with books that I didn’t dig out. I mention these limitations to my research because this is how inequality in the 21st century can persist. For as much as I imagine myself to be forward-thinking in matters of parenting and social justice, while in the throes of everyday life, it is all too easy to slide into historical patterns of underrepresentation, if not complicit prejudice. Of the 426 picture books I counted, which we have accumulated for three kids over 13 years, 53 have a main character that is human and not white. I was fearing it would be something like 5, so I am relieved, but in terms of our proportions, it comes out to 12%, a very 20th-century library.
The Snowy Day was a member of the 53 (I passed over our copy of The Cat in the Hat, blushing), but my audit raised further questions about how much, or how well, these books advance the causes of inclusion, equity, anti-racism—causes that motivate my attention. For example, I counted Taro Gomi’s lovely books, originally published in Japanese, but are people and culture of East Asia “represented,” in the sense of promoting diversity? Yes, I decided, compared to Emily’s Balloon by Komako Sakai, also translated from Japanese, in which Emily looks white (so I didn’t count it as part of the 53).
As for Keats’ books, other than Juanito’s Spanish, the stories never call direct attention to ethnicity or race. His images do, but also not really: they show skin color, but not anything that would suggest culture or identity. If any identity is explicit in Keats’ stories of apartment-dwelling and alleyway adventuring, it is working-class urban culture. It is also noteworthy that none of his characters are identified as Jewish. Keats does take up religion in his 1966 book God is in the Mountain, but to make something of a universalist statement: it is an illustrated collection of passages from religious texts spanning the globe.
If Keats sought to diversify picture books, it was to depict the ideal of the melting pot, and when The Snowy Day was published, reviewers were correspondingly colorblind. According to Kathleen T. Horning’s 2016 article for The Horn Book magazine, “The Enduring Footprints of Peter, Ezra Jack Keats, and The Snowy Day,” the book was widely and favorably reviewed, but only three publications acknowledged Peter’s race. The Saturday Review commented on race to dismiss it: “that the boy’s skin is brown is never mentioned in the text, so it is for all children.” This aspect of Keats’ work also drew criticism. While the civil-rights advocacy group the Council on Interracial Books for Children put Keats’ books on its recommended books list, it also criticized Keats for presenting children of color who might as well be white.
The tension here is echoed in my own reading: is it a beloved family favorite because it never calls attention to race—Peter’s or ours? As Keats said of Peter, “he simply should have been there all along” in children’s literature, and I agree—we all agree—but only if he “might as well be” white?
Keats himself was outspoken about his cause of diversifying children’s literature—except for when he wasn’t. In his essay “The Right to Be Real,” published in The Saturday Review after The Snowy Day won the Caldecott, Keats writes that “[w]e are now entering a new era of children’s books,” one that will “relegate to the past the kind of books, both trade and text, in which an entire people and a great heritage have been deliberately ignored.” When he won the Caldecott for The Snowy Day, however, in his acceptance speech given a month before the 1963 March on Washington, he opts to deliberately ignore it. He suggests its significance in his concluding sentence—“I can honestly say that Peter came into being because we wanted him”—but he doesn’t once mention Peter’s race.
This mixed messaging continues through today. Deborah Pope, Executive Director of The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which, among other initiatives to honor the artist, gives an annual award to promote diversity in children’s literature, told National Public Radio on the 50th anniversary of The Snowy Day that Keats didn’t mention Peter’s race in the book because it “wasn’t important. It wasn’t the point. The point is that this is a beautiful book about a child’s encounter with snow, and the wonder of it. […] Was he trying to make a ‘cause’ book, was he trying to make a point? No.”
Again, before my attention gets fixed on what other people say and don’t say, do and don’t publish, I have to acknowledge that, in my countless readings of The Snowy Day as a white father to my white kids (Peter appears against a blanketing whiteness indeed), I had never talked about Peter’s race either. What would there be to talk about? It is, as Pope suggests, crafted as a universal story, which makes it doubly remarkable on our bookshelf: not only does this book star a Black child, this Black child represents universal childhood.
But if race is not acknowledged, if this “remarkableness” is not remarked upon, how visible, or present, is Peter? How present, or realized, is the childhood he represents? How present are we, when we read it?
In all of our appreciation of The Snowy Day, the blizzarding wonder for me is in how race appears in the book, then disappears when it is reviewed, awarded, honored 50 years later, and when I continue to read it. It makes me further wonder whether, in our collective white mind, the feat was—and is—the appearance of race or its disappearance. It recalls Toni Morrison’s 1988 essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature”:
I can’t help thinking that the question should never have been “Why am I, an Afro-American, absent from it?” It is not a particularly interesting query anyway. The spectacularly interesting question is “What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that performance had on the work?”
My performance of reading of The Snowy Day, which is also a performance of parenting, is what gives importance to Peter hopping.
I tried it myself, one snowy day last year. Crunch, crunch, crunch, my feet sank into the snow. While playing with my toddler after a new snowfall in the mostly white, suburban alleyway behind my duplex, I took twelve walking steps and looked back, then twelve hops and looked back. They made for very different moments of reflection. Walking allowed me to carefully place my footsteps; a dozen hops took the wind out of me.
Here is where my mistake of not noticing is costly: I had always seen this moment as one of quiet introspection. I thought I knew what Peter was thinking and feeling, how he was looking and breathing. I thought I knew Peter, in other words, and that The Snowy Day knew Peter. But I don’t think we did.
What else am I reading right over, and repeatedly?
I have to stop modeling colorblindness, in the name of the universal, when I read this book—and really, any book. The avoidance of race amounts to its erasure, even as I honor its presence on my bookshelf. It models for my kids that, as white people, we talk about race when it is somehow advantageous, or called to our attention, as in (most of) our 53 books that feature a main character of color, but otherwise, we don’t have to worry about it, as in our other 373.
And what of these other 373? Feast for Ten is a “raced” counting book; what about Counting Birds? The books about science? The narratives that star animals by Richard Scarry, Sandra Boynton, Mo Willems—they don’t “depict race,” but in what ways, or to what degree, do they express whiteness, the absence of color, a defaulted position of power? And in what ways do I reinforce, or recreate, our own defaulted position of power as a white family if I avoid thinking or talking about race when I read any of the 426 books my kids and I cuddle up and share?
Perhaps a timeless virtue of The Snowy Day is that it offers a choice. I can “read colorblind,” a choice I had been making without noticing, or I can have a conversation about race with my kids, a conversation which, like Peter, also “simply should have been there all along.” I want to make the latter choice now; what I have been struggling with, simply, is how to start.
I have faith in literature: a book this good teaches me how to read it, or in this case, to read it better. If there is not a clear and obvious way to address race in The Snowy Day, it’s my responsibility to find one.
Peter himself is a model for learning. After he looks back on his footprints—made by hopping—he then learns about the snow and what to do in it, dragging his feet “s-l-o-w-l-y to make tracks,” and making snow angels and a “smiling snowman.” He also learns about himself in relation to others: “He thought it would be fun to join the big boys in their snowball fight, but he knew he wasn’t old enough—not yet.” Peter sits in the foreground, a snowball splattered on his torso. Apparently, he learned this the hard way. Peter also conducts two experiments. He hits a snow-covered tree branch with a stick, learning that snow then falls on his head, and upon returning home, puts a snowball in his pocket “for tomorrow.”
“It will melt!” my toddler exclaims when we get to this page. She knows this not only because we’ve read the story countless times, but because last winter she replicated his experiment.
At the end the book, another snowy day begins, but this time there is a big difference. Instead of going out in the snow alone, “After breakfast he called to his friend from across the hall, and they went out together in the deep, deep snow.” The last page shows the two of them in the distance, walking away.
What else have I been reading over?
“Do you know what this means,” I asked my daughter, under the covers for bedtime stories, “that his friend was ‘across the hall’?” For as much as the book is “universal,” here is a detail from Peter’s world, and Keats’, that places them—and us—in the world together.
My daughter kept her thumb in her mouth and shook her head. I briefly explained what an apartment building was. To my memory, she had only been in two. She didn’t remember either.
Another time, after reading the book at breakfast, I said to my daughter, “So, Peter has brown skin, like Doc McStuffins,” a current favorite cartoon. “What about Peter’s friend?”
She looked. “His coat is brown.”
“So, yes? Or we don’t know?”
We both stayed quiet, looking.
“Do we know it’s a boy? It only says ‘his friend.’”
“I think he’s a girl.” She smiled. “I think he’s a boy.”
Why did she switch back from “girl” to “boy”? Was it the force of the gendered pronoun? Was it her flexible toddler mind? Either way, there it is, on the very last page, the point of entry I had been reading over, and repeatedly. It’s Peter’s friend that can engage me in conversations about identity—beginning with our assumptions, and the question of whether we see ourselves alongside Peter or not.