I am breathless with excitement! The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, is fifty years old, and a commemorative edition is out. I’ve already ordered it after reading about it in the Washington Post Style section today.
I was ten when book came out and felt that I was way too mature to look at a mere picture book, but I did happily read it to my daughters when they were little. Since we were living in the D.C. area and only visited my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio a few times in winter, the magic of snow in the city was mostly unfamiliar to them. Those few times that we did visit home, they made snow angels to their hearts’ content, as did the story’s protagonist, Peter, in The Snowy Day.
We never talked about Peter as black. He was a little boy, just like some of the little boys they knew in school.
When I began teaching young children, Keat’s stories became a regular part of my curriculum. We went outside in the snow (with boots on!) to make snow angels and throw snowballs at trees (not at people!). The children enjoyed making tracks in the snow with sticks, as Peter did. They experimented with footprints, and we looked for animal tracks. I even photographed snow-tracks of different animals for guessing games.
After reading Peter’s Chair, the children voted on a design of a chair we would sand and paint for the school’s auction. One little boy asked his mother to bring his baby sister to school for show-and-tell. Peter had a baby sister, so he wanted to share his!
Once I began teaching Language Arts for Young Children at Northern Virginia Community College I required my students to do an author report, sharing curriculum ideas, biographical, and bibliographical information. Much to my surprise, and a testament to the truism that teachers learn by teaching, I discovered that “Jack” was not black. He was a Jew of Eastern European descent, and that he changed his name to Keats from Katz because of the anti-Semitism he experienced in New York. My own mother experienced such anti-Semitism in urban Cleveland during those same years. A simple story about a little boy became intensely personal for me.
Keats expressed his love for his tumbledown urban, integrated (“diverse”) neighborhood through his art. Keats’ love of art, of his life in a city of graft and graffiti, inspired his storytelling even as both he and his subjects suffered from prejudice and bigotry. Teachers can take Keats’ work as a springboard for many activities that inspire interest in science, art, literature and math. They do this all the time. African-American teachers can and do use The Snowy Day for Black History month, since Peter was the first black child featured in an American picture book.
What else can we do? A large part of teaching young children includes emotional literacy: knowing and understanding your own feelings in order to understand other people. Can we talk about how Keats felt a kinship with his black protagonist because of his own experience in a less than tolerant country? Can we talk about feeling left out or disliked with young children by asking them to journal about their own experiences? Can we talk about understanding others? Even as my mother and her family suppressed her roots to get by in twentieth century urban America (the family name, Mansfeld, was changed to Mansfield), Keats changed his name to hide his own roots. We don’t want children to feel they have to do the same thing with any aspect of their identities. We want them to become fearless in art and fearless in communication, bridging divides while expressing themselves authentically, just as he did. How do you do this in your teaching practice? Share your thoughts.