Ezra Jack Keats’s picture book is the most checked-out volume of all time at the New York Public Library. A professor of children’s literature examines why the book has connected with so many kids.
Kids and families love Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day so much that they’ve checked it out of the New York Public Library system more than any other book in the NYPL’s 125 years of existence—485,583 times since it was published in 1962. That’s more than The Cat in the Hat, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, and even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. What makes this quiet picture book so well loved?
For starters, there’s something inherently magical about a snowy day. Whether you live in a place where it always snows or a place where it rarely snows, the idea of winter’s first snowfall brings delight and anticipation. When there’s enough snow to slow everything and everyone down, it might mean stress and work for the adults, but for most kids, it’s time to go out and play.
The cover of The Snowy Day features the main character, Peter, swathed from head to toe in his red snowsuit, dwarfed by undulating mounds of snow. Even before readers crack the book open, they know that more than enough of the white stuff has fallen for snow angels, snowmen, snowball fights, and, of course, footprints with your toes pointed out “like this” and with your toes pointed in “like that.” Readers sense Peter’s unbridled joy as he engages in all these activities; he is so enamored of the snow that he tucks a snowball into his pocket before he goes inside, hoping to save it for later.
Keats’s vibrant collage illustrations bring this simple plot to life. They include checkered oilcloth used for lining cabinets to make the mother’s dress, marbleized paper, gum erasers for snowflakes, watercolor for bubbles, splatter painting with India ink, and more. Keats cut pieces of beautiful paper from all around the world—Sweden, Japan, Italy—and glued them together to make images worth looking at over and over again. Reynold Ruffins, one of Keats’s artistic contemporaries and a fellow picture-book artist, wrote in an anthology of Keats’s work that Keats would spend days pondering different hand-dipped papers, trying to choose the right one for an image he was composing.
Keats departs from realism in his portrayal of the snow in The Snowy Day, but this departure paradoxically makes the story ring more true. The illustration in which Peter and his buddy walk into the “deep, deep snow” might feel like an exaggeration because of the height of the mounds on either side of them, but when you’re as small as Peter is, perhaps the mountains of snow feel as big as they look on that last page of the story. Keats effectively illustrates a child’s-eye view.
The Snowy Day is famous for being the first book featuring an African American child to win the Caldecott Medal for excellence in children’s picture books. African American children had certainly appeared in picture books prior, but the high-profile nature of the Caldecott Medal means that the book still has wide distribution, outlasting many of its contemporaries. To this day, nearly every American library that houses children’s books buys at least one copy of The Snowy Day, making it widely available to young American readers everywhere.This book not only cleared a path for Keats to illustrate in many more books the children of color with whom he grew up in Brooklyn, but through Peter, it gave those children a window into their own lives: a kid who looked like them, who loved to play in the snow, too.
If I like the work of an author or illustrator, and I discover that the artist is also a likable person, I appreciate their work more. Maybe the children who have made The Snowy Day the most checked-out book of the New York Public Library system would like to know that Keats cherished the feedback he received from his readers and wrote back to them. According to Anita Silvey in her introduction to the Keats anthology, he often quoted his favorite letter from a kid who wrote, “We like you because you have the mind of a child.” Susan Hirschman, Keats’s longtime editor, said that he agonized over the mistakes he made in his early picture books. When a child pointed out that a guinea pig’s tail in Millicent Selsam’s How Animals Sleep (1968), which Keats illustrated, was actually the tail of a rat (naked rather than hairy, as it should be), he wrote letters of apology to both the mother and the child. Knowing this gives me an even greater appreciation for the craft and care with which Keats created The Snowy Day.
As a black child growing up in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I had few books with kids who looked like me, even though my parents were educators and my maternal grandmother, who taught kindergarten at an all-black elementary school, handed down her old classroom-library books to my brother and me. Peter was there for me, though, and he stuck around for my daughter, born in 2003, who has enjoyed him as much as I. Now 16, my daughter is still as fascinated with snow as she was at 3 and 4, and Peter might be partly responsible for that. Keats made Peter’s world so inviting that it beckons us. Perhaps the busyness of daily life in the 21st century makes us appreciate Peter even more—a kid who has the luxury of a whole day to just be outside, surrounded by snow that’s begging to be enjoyed.