STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
More than 50 years ago, a book called "The Snowy Day" broke the color barrier in mainstream children's publishing. The story featured a boy named Peter wandering through his neighborhood after a snow storm. Peter was black. The book has become a classic. It's in my house. And now, there's an animated holiday special streaming on Amazon, as well as a new book called "A Poem For Peter," which pays tribute to "Snowy Day's" author and illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats. NPR's Lynn Neary has more.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Andrea Davis Pinkney says, when she was asked to write a book about Ezra Jack Keats, she jumped at the chance like a kid on a sled. That's because "The Snowy Day" was her favorite book as a child.
ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY: I slept with "The Snowy Day." I loved that book. It was like a pillow to me. That's how much comfort it brought me.
NEARY: A comfort because this book was about people like her.
PINKNEY: What I saw was myself. You know, up to that point, there were many picture books, but they were in rural settings. And here was this book that made my life, my experience valid - city streets, sidewalks, stoops, everything that I held so dear.
NEARY: As she worked on the biography, Pinkney learned that Keats was also a city kid, the child of immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in Poland. He always wanted to be an artist. But when Keats was still a teenager, his father died. Then, World War II broke out, and his dreams were put on hold. After serving in the Army, Keets returned to face discrimination on the home front.
PINKNEY: He could not find a job. I mean, there were literally signs in windows that said, Jews need not apply. Ezra was born with the name Jacob Jack Ezra Katz. When he saw those signs, he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats.
NEARY: Eventually, Keats got a job as an illustrator. At some point, he saw a series of photos of a little black boy in Life magazine. He held on to those pictures for 20 years.
PINKNEY: And then he gets an invitation to create his own children's book. And he said, this is the boy I'm going to use as the star of my own children's book.
NEARY: In her book, "A Poem For Peter," Pinkney describes Keats' life and the creation of Peter in verse.
PINKNEY: (Reading) Brown sugar boy in a blanket of white, bright as the day you came onto the page, from the hand of a man whose life and times and hardships and heritage and heroes and heart and soul led him to you.
NEARY: "The Snowy Day," with its beautiful illustrations, was an instant hit. But Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, says there was also a backlash against Keats because he was white.
DEBORAH POPE: Ezra was criticized for presuming to be able to write about a black child.
NEARY: Pope says Keats offered a simple explanation for creating a book with a black child as its central character.
POPE: I put these characters into my books because they're there. They've always been there, but we've never seen them. We need to see them.
NEARY: And, Pope says, children of color still need to see themselves in books and other media, which is why she helped produce the animated version of "The Snowy Day."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SNOWY DAY")
LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As narrator) Peter picks up a handful of snow - and another and still another. He packs it round and firm and puts the snowball in his pocket for later.
REGINA KING: (As Mom) Peter.
NEARY: Many years ago, Ezra Jack Keats saw a need and filled it. That need, says Andrea Davis Pinkney, still exists.
PINKNEY: We need more Peters. We need more stories that are universal in nature and that appeal to all children just because of their beauty and whimsy and fun and discovery.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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