A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, is a joy to read from start to finish.
The story begins with the narrator’s delight in Peter, the protagonist of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, as the speaker addresses Peter and tells this “brown-sugar boy” how he came to be: how Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz was born to a family of loving parents and two older siblings. How the family boarded a ship
Bound for America,
where, they prayed,
no one would prey
on Jews as they’d done back in Poland.
How America, too, had
The dark heel of
dancing in the streets
Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
The narrative is poetry, swinging, swaying poetry beautiful on the page and even better read aloud. And as much as this is an ode to the boy who was an artist who became the extraordinary man who created Peter, it is also a paean to the people who shaped and encouraged Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz:
Papa Benjamin, serving coffee to “busy city people. who didn’t always tip”, who brought home left-over paints and secretly bought new paints for his son out of a scanty salary;
the local business owners, who hired a third-grader to paint their signs;
teachers and friends who “Loved that boy, yes they did./ Saw his gifts, before he could”; who
Took Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz by the hand,
like a pair of warm mittens,
and led him to a place of promise:
The Brooklyn Public Library,
with its enchanted land
called the Reference Room.
Poetry and pictures work together seamlessly,* drawing the reader along the life path that led a boy who loved art to a man who gave up university to support his family but never gave up his dream. Despite the poverty and discrimination that hemmed Jacob Ezra Katz into poverty, that saw him fight for his country in World War Two only to return to want ads that read: No Jews Need Apply — prejudice that pushed Jacob Ezra Katz to rearrange his name into Ezra Jack Keats, as many had to to survive — the narrative is full of joy and vitality, in the knowledge that Ezra Jack Keats lived, that he loved people and art, that he saw beyond the all-white, only white, always, of the comic books he was employed to draw, and that this Jewish American artist finally in 1962 did what he had wanted to for twenty years: created a picturebook about a small African American boy, Peter, on a snowy day adventure.
And soon readers called for
more of where are you?
And between you two,
the one-of-a-kind snowflakes
Onto sweet pages
of brown-sugar good.
The endnotes add details about Keats’ life and artistic development to further whet the appetite. (I’d like to read more about Annis Duff, the editor who insisted that Peter must be the cover’s prominent feature, not a discreet white snowman.)
Exuberant, empathetic, and ever rejoicing in the art and artist who inspired so many children by showing them themselves, A Song for Peter is a book to read and reread. Stick it on your shelf next to The Snowy Day, or with your collection of favourite picturebook biographies. Lend it to a friend, and read it to your kids. Highly recommended.
*There is so much to say (to admire) about the illustrations, but to begin to do them justice would require a whole other post — or, more likely, an academic analytic essay.