Sunday, September 11, 2011

Snow Day--a review of THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats

Peter wakes up one morning to find the world covered in snow. He spends his day outside, learning about the fun and beauty of a snowy day. Later that evening, when the snowball he put in his pocket disappears, Peter learns that you can’t always keep a good thing with you, but you can always dream about it. And, sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you might just wake up to find more snow has fallen while you were sleeping.
Keats, Ezra Jack. 1962. The Snowy Day. New York, Viking. ISBN 9780670654000.

The Snowy Day is “a classic,” a book that has been around for a while, a book that all children’s picture books aspire to be. But why? It’s a simple story. What is it with this book? The answer is fundamental. This book is about a lone explorer discovering a new world. The snowy day is Peter’s new world to conquer. He sets out, making his mark, leaving tracks in the snow. He learns what he can and cannot do, coming to terms with the snow in the branches, deciding he’d better not play with the big kids. He uses his imagination and sense of adventure to create meaning in this new world, crafting a snowman, snow angels, pretending to be a mountain climber conquering the highest mountain. He even tries to take some of his new world with him, putting a snowball in his pocket to save for later, before he returns to the familiar warmth of his mother at home. Peter’s sadness over the loss of the snowball reminds us of the sadness we feel when we realize that we will never have quite the same experience or see the world the same way, ever again. His dream reminds us that some worlds are fragile and easily lost. Sure, Peter will be blessed with other snowy days, and because he has mastered that world alone, he can share new adventures in that world with his friend from across the hall. Deep down, we are all children, still discovering new worlds, as terrific and terrifying as that might be.

I barely recall watching Captain Kangaroo read this book on television, long before I could read, and it’s the illustrations that I remember. It’s the illustrations, even more than the story, that give this book visible sticking power. How did Keats accomplish this? In collage and paint on board Keats plays with the entire visible light spectrum in fairly large color blocks. He uses reds, oranges and yellows to create the warmth of the familiar—Peter’s clothes, other children, his mother, his bath toys, the sun—and he juxtaposes those colors against the blues, indigos and violets of the snowy, unfamiliar outdoors. Perhaps the greatest contrast lies in Keats’ use of white, to create the unchartered territory of the snow itself, and his choice of red for Peter. The message of the entire text is encapsulated in a single, wordless illustration. In this picture, we see the back of Peter in his red snowsuit, a warm little spark of humanity, blazing out into fresh, white territory. In fact, he’s exploring so far, he is almost ready to step off the edge of the book. Luckily for us, he comes home. The next day, he takes a friend, the two of them creating a little spot of the familiar, in the midst of the snowy, white world. We never stop encountering new worlds, no matter how old we are. We are all just a little bit like Peter.

Awards and Reviews
  • Caldecott Medal, 1963
  • Cited by the New York Public Library as one of the "150 Most Influential Books of the 20th Century" (1996) as as one of the "100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know" (n.d.)
  • 100 Best Books for Children, 1999, National Education Association
  • Cited in Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books for Children
Teaching and Learning Resources

Pamela Chanko offers the following lesson plans in her book, Teaching with Favorite Ezra Jack Keats Books: Engaging, Skill-Building Activities That Help Kids Learn About Families, Friendship, Neighborhood & Community, and More in These Beloved Classics.

Science Connection: Saving Snowballs
1. Invite children to talk about the part of the book where Peter’s snowball melts. Can they think of a way he might have saved it? Invite children to brainstorm a list of ideas. Write children’s suggestions on chart paper as they dictate.

Language Arts Connection:
1. Revisit the story with children, inviting them to look for words beginning with snow (such as snowsuit, snowman, snowball). Write the words on a chart, using one color marker for snow and another color for the word ending. Invite children to look at the words and tell what they have in common. Explain compound words, inviting children to suggest other compound words beginning with snow to add to the list.
2. Invite children to map out a plan for their own snowy day. Divide a large piece of drawing paper into three sections: snowy morning, snowy afternoon, and snowy night. Discuss and draw what children do during each time of the day. Share pictures and post pictures in the room as part of a “Winter Fun” exhibit.

There is a fabulous Author Study on Ezra Jack Keats at Scholastic, which includes a lesson plan for creating snowflakes out of tortilla by Jeremy Brunaccioni, and so much more.

The de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi houses the Ezra Jack Keats Archives, and hosts “Ezra Jack Keats: a Virtual Exhibition.”

3-Step Snowy Day Art Project, available here.

Finally, many more lessons and links can be found at the Educator’s Corner, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

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