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You remember Peter. You probably grew up with him, whether you are eight or eight times eight. That’s because Peter is a hero, collaged from words and hope and universal experiences. Painted and presented by a man who knew the same.
This, then, is a look at Peter’s roots, how he came onto the page, and who the man was that really truly saw him.
The spread above is from The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats’s story set in the city and featuring a sweet black boy, cloaked in red. There are no muddy, slushy grays in Peter’s city—only sparkling, color-streaked crystals in the piles of snow. Beauty seen by every child on a snowy day.
The opening spread of A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day welcomes Peter back, feet sinking into the snow. Easy to imagine how they are about to crunch crunch crunch, inviting us into his history this time.
Jacob (Jack) Ezra Keats was born into a family of five, behind a sister and a brother. A firecracker and a dreamer. His parents, Benjamin and Gussie, had come to America from Poland, hoping for a better life. Hoping they would be safe with their faith in Brooklyn.
Illustrators Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson have patched their pictures together with bits of Keats’s illustrations—from other books starring Peter. Ezra Jack Keats’s own art is the foundation for this book about him. Ezra Jack Keat’s own life is the foundation for Peter.
We don’t see Peter or Ezra on this boat to America, but we do see glimpses of that spectacular red coat, reminding us throughout of their intertwined lives.
Ezra’s home was Peter’s home. As echoed in the text, “snow doesn’t choose where to fall.” It just does, and his home is your home is our home.
All of us, the same. And yet, only some of us on the pages of books.
The Keats family didn’t have much, but Ezra had teachers. They opened the doors for him to the Brooklyn Public Library where Ezra fell into learning and reading and art and imagination. Hard knocks still courted the Keats family. The Great Depression still came.
Oh, such Great Disappointment.
Out of school.
Out of work.
Out of luck.
And still. Ezra made art. Peter made angels.
Peter, that angel, showed up in the way art causes a pause in the artist himself. The comic book heroes were as white as the snow that fell over everything. Where was Peter? Why wasn’t brown a marvel?
Ezra, the artist. Son of immigrants. Poor. A soldier who fought against Hitler with posters and booklets and maps and art. A Jew who changed his name in order to get a job.
Ezra understood what it felt like to be different, to be invisible, to not be on the page with the heroes. That’s how Peter was born.
The above spread is from The Snowy Day, and reading this picture with the wide open window into Ezra’s heart, it becomes impossible to un-see the dreams in that one shimmering eye. The wishes for mittens and sticks for smacking. And the adventures that wait on the other side of a long line of footprints.
Together, Ezra and Peter march forward. The snow still sparkles.
Be sure to check out our ALL THE WONDERS of A Poem for Peter post for much more with Peter, including a look at the artistic influences drawn from A Snowy Day, a podcast interview with author Andrea Davis Pinkney, and a closer look at the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.