A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the creation of The Snowy Day

A Poem for Peter book cover

A Poem for Peter is an outstanding work of narrative nonfiction that functions as both biography, and background information for Ezra Jack Keat’s most well-known picture book, The Snowy Day.

A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day
by Andrea Davis Pinkney; pictures by Lou Fancer & Steve Johnson
Viking, 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-28768-2
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative verse
52 pages : color illustrations ; 25 x 28 cm
Interest Level: grades 2 and up; Reading Level: 3.2
5 out of 5 stars


In A Poem for Peter, Andrea Davis Pinkney has created a book that pays homage to Keats’ award winning book, A Snowy Day, as well as provides a biography of the fascinating man who created Peter and shared his snowy interlude with the world.

As a biography, Pinkney uses a narrative verse style to tell the story of Keats’ early life, from birth until he wrote A Snowy Day in 1962. This style of writing makes an excellent read-aloud experience, and is an engaging way to introduce younger children to the idea of reading a biography for pleasure. Many students do not think of biographies for pleasure reading, but this book would make an excellent example of nonfiction books that read like fiction.

A Poem for Peter starts with a biography of Keats, who was born Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz. His parents were Polish immigrants who struggled to provide for the family in Brooklyn, New York. From a very young age, Ezra was a gifted artist, but his father was “worried about his son’s dream. Feared for what he couldn’t see. An artist was a strange, impractical thing to be. You couldn’t earn a decent wage giving imagination wings.” Secretly though, his father would save money to buy paint for Ezra, who also had the support of teachers and friends.

The day before Ezra was to graduate from high school, his father died of a heart attack, and his dreams of attending art school went away. Part of what makes A Poem for Peter such a wonderful tribute to Keats is that the illustrations are created using the collage style that Keats himself used in his books. The image that is on the page telling about his father’s death, is incredibly powerful:
Untitled You can see the cap and gown, as well as the road that he was all set to travel, disintegrating into fragments. The story continues with Keats working odd jobs to earn money, joining the Air Force during WWII, and then working on comic books, until finally he is given the opportunity to create his own picture book. Pinkney has included a thread throughout the story that lets us see how all of Keats’ life has led him to create Peter and his snowy escapades. The illustrators even include original source documents to show where Keats got the idea for Peter: Untitled
For over 20 years, Keats carried this clipping from Life magazine, until he found the perfect use for the image of the expressive young boy.

I have always loved the simple, yet timeless story that is told in The Snowy Day. The joy of playing in the snow as a child was perfectly conveyed by Ezra Jack Keats using a collage style for illustrations. Peter’s story is one that all children can relate to and that brings back fond memories for adults.

What is truly amazing about The Snow Day is that it features a black child who is meant to represent the common experiences of childhood. In 1962, Keats noticed that the main characters in books that he was being paid to illustrate were all white. Keats had this to say about Peter:

“Then began an experience that turned my life around,” he wrote, “working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I’d begun to illustrate children’s books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book.” (from Ezra Jack Keats Foundation: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/ezras-life/)

I highly recommend this book to all teachers and librarians, especially for upper elementary and older. This book, through both the biographical story, as well as the additional information in the back — Ezra’s Legacy; Keats, the Collage Poet; list of books written and illustrated by Keats; and a list of sources — provides a complete picture of what life was like during 1962 and why The Snow Day was such an important contribution to children’s literature.

Lesson ideas
School librarians could open a study of Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day at the beginning of winter. The librarian could read A Poem for Peter to build inquiry, then follow up with a reading of The Snowy Day. Then, using ideas from the Novel Engineering website (http://www.novelengineering.org/books/the-snowy-day), the librarian could lead students through a problem-based learning activity that has them solving some of the problems Peter faces in the story using engineering design process. What could students design and create that would keep the snowball from melting in his coat pocket? Is there a machine that could help Peter participate in the snowball fight with the older kids?

Ezra Jack Keats Foundation lesson plans and activities: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/ezras-books/the-snowy-day/
There are lots of fun activities that can extend the story of The Snowy Day. There is a read-aloud of the story on this site as well. There is also an author’s biography that is intended for children, as well as quotes from famous people who share their memories of The Snowy Day.

Scholastic Ezra Jack Keats author study: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/collection/ezra-jack-keats-author-study
This site includes extension activities and lessons plans. There is also a science themed lesson plan for The Snowy Day.

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