My piece on the Ezra Jack Keats retrospective at the Jewish Museum of New York went up at Tablet magazine today. It focuses on the Jewish angle (bien sur), but I wanted to share some non-Jew-y observations here.
The must-see show does a fine job discussing the mixed reception Keats received for The Snowy Day, one of the first children’s books for general audiences featuring a non-caricatured black protagonist. Though it won the Caldecott Medal, not everybody loved it. Some parents objected to the very notion of Peter getting his own story. (One asked Keats, “Where’s the white edition?” He replied, “Like life, there is only one edition.”) Others felt that Peter wasn’t black enough; the story of a kid playing in the snow doesn’t depict the specificity of the African-American experience. While I do think some of Keats’s work is kind of cringe-inducingly, naively It’s-A-Small-World-y, I’d argue that The Snowy Day is not. As Maurice Berger, the senior research scholar at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture in Baltimore, puts it in the show’s catalog, “The Snowy Day, despite its association of equality with similarity, challenged the negligence…of a children’s publishing industry that all but banished positive represenations of black people. As a tentative Peter stepped out into his first snowfall, confronting the relentless whiteness of his urban environment, his journey served as a metaphor of Keats’s own imperative to introduce blackness into a cultural milieu that saw little reason to include it.”
This book was published in 1962. It was groundbreaking for simply being. That said, I think it does show an awareness of race and difference, while simultaneously depicting an emotionally real, true-feeling childhood experience. (Snow! A stick! Footprints! I want to preserve this snowball!) The combo of universal and specific — along with gorgeous art — is why it has become the classic it is.
I knew the book had defenders and detractors among both African-Americans and whites. But I did not know anyone had an issue with Peter’s mother’s size.
In an essay in the Saturday Evening Post in 1963, the critic Nancy Larrick called Peter’s mother a mammy stereotype, a “huge figure in a gaudy yellow plaid dress, albeit without the red bandanna.” Wait, because she’s fat she’s inherently a stereotype? A negative one? And in a book filled with crazy color (red snowsuit, orange tenements, hot pink bathtub, rose and green and blue snowflakes), how precisely is the yellow dress tacky? Is she supposed to wear black because it’s slimming? And as for the (absent but IT COULDA BEEN THERE) bandana — geez, projecting much?
The groundbreaking African-American author Ellen Tarry (1906-2008) responded in a letter to the paper: “I am a stout Negro mother and my daughter has enjoyed a big lap to sit in and ample bosom on which to lean in times of trouble. I saw Ezra Jack Keats’s mother before the book was published and commented on the fact that she was a solid security symbol. I loved her colorful house dress, too.”
Keats (who yearned for affection from his own stout Jewish mother, Gussie) also responded to Larrick’s charges. “If any group of people is to be pictured as always fashionably thin, with children who never misbehave, and all of them improbably perfect, we are denying people’s right to deal with reality and assume the very responsibilities for which they struggle,” he wrote. “Let us now open the book covers…to new and wonderful, true and inspiring books for children about all children – the tall and short, fat and thin, dark and light, beautiful and homely. Welcome!”
Wait, dude — you sure you wanna invite the FATTIES?