By Hannah Lee
Do you remember the joy of finding a book that reflected your life, your family? As an immigrant living on the Lower East Side, I learned about American ways through the Girl Scout manual, and was puzzled by the young adult stories of Beverly Cleary, who wrote about teenage boys who played football, and girls who rallied them with cheers in formation. By the time I became a mother, books about Asian-American families had become available, and I still happily collect them.
Back in the mid-20th century, book publishers were not interested in reaching a wider audience beyond the mainstream culture. Ezra Jack Keats was a pioneer, who convinced Viking Press to allow depiction of a black boy, Peter, in his 1962 book, The Snowy Day. He also broke new literary ground in portraying an urban setting and using collage to illustrate his text. The book won the 1963 Caldecott Award for “most distinguished American picture book for children.”
Born in 1916 to Polish Jewish immigrants, Keats grew up poor in East New York, Brooklyn. His father discouraged his interest in writing, while simultaneously supporting his talent with tubes of paint. Keats changed his name from Jack Ezra Katz in 1947 in reaction to the anti-semitism in the country
The reaction to The Snowy Day ranged from outrage that Keats was not himself black to gratitude for expanding the racial profile of the book world. The poet and leader of the “Harlem Renaissance,” Langston Hughes, praised it as “a perfectly charming little book.” The writer Sherman Alexie read it as a child on an Indian reservation in the 1970s and reminisced:
It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character — a character who resembled me physically and spiritually in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation.
This summer we are treated with overlapping exhibits in our city’s institutions, with The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats at the National Museum of American Jewish History, a retrospective collection of the work of Jerry Pinkney at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a companion exhibit on Pinkney’s body of work at the Free Library on Vine Street.
A native son of Germantown born in 1939, Pinkney struggled with dyslexia, but he soared through his talent in drawing. Whereas Keats’ black characters could have been anybody, Pinkey’s artwork explicitly incorporates African-American motifs. He won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for his illustration of The Lion & the Mouse, a version of Aesop’s fable that he also wrote. He also has five Caldecott Honors, among other awards. One of my favorite of his works is of Goin’ Someplace Special, written by Patricia McKissack. Set in the late 1950s in Nashville, it is about a time and place where the library was one of the few places that disregarded the segregationist Jim Crow laws and treated blacks with respect.
Books may not lead social movements, but they have lasting impacts in supporting individuals who live outside the mainstream. You are no longer fringe when there are books that reflect your life.