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'Snowy Day' is focus of Philly exhibit

| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 8:51 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — During the height of the civil rights movement, a gentle book about a black boy in a red snowsuit crunch-crunch-crunching through the snow broke down racial barriers and is the subject of an exhibit that opened on Friday.

Ezra Jack Keats' beloved 1962 book, “The Snowy Day,” is credited as the first mass-market children's storybook to feature a black protagonist — a preschooler named Peter joyfully exploring the snow-covered sidewalks in his New York City neighborhood.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is presenting a retrospective, “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” through Oct. 20. The exhibit includes more than 70 works, ranging from preliminary sketches to final paintings and collages.

“We wanted to marry the strength of the show as an art exhibition with the significance of the book in children's literature,” museum curator Josh Perelman said. “We really wanted the exhibit spaces to feel alive ... to feel like being in a children's book.”

The son of white Jewish immigrants from Poland, Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn in 1916 and grew up in poverty. Artistically gifted but unable to attend art school, he started out working as a sign painter, comic book background illustrator and Works Progress Administration muralist before turning to children's books.

“Keats drew a considerable amount on the fact that he experienced prejudice in his own life, and he had a sensitivity to what it felt like to be marginalized,” Perelman said. “He also had a world view that embraced extending that sensitivity toward other people who may feel marginalized as well.”

Peter's world was a reflection of Keats', Perelman said, “the city streets where he felt comfortable, where he called home and that happened to be inhabited by working-class and poor folks and by African-American folks.”

“That's who he felt should be in his books. This isn't ‘Eloise,' ” he said, referring to the book of a girl who lives in Manhattan's posh Plaza Hotel with her nanny. “It's a very different New York City.”

Awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1963, “The Snowy Day” is published in at least 10 languages. It is on the Library of Congress' list of “Books That Shaped America” and is rated by teacher and librarian groups as one of the all-time top children's books.

“If you look at children's literature previous to ‘The Snowy Day,' there are very few positive examples of publications for African-American children,” Perelman said, “and there's a whole lot of very derogatory, stereotypical and outright racist material.”

Keats, who died in 1983, illustrated more than 85 books. In six more books after “The Snowy Day,” readers followed Peter growing up from a kindergarten-age boy to an adolescent. His race was never mentioned.

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