Yes, I know we’ve only just talked about Ezra Jack Keats, but today we woke up to the last snow of winter and the first of spring, and I thought, well, this is my last chance to talk about this book this year. Let’s go for it. Also, who doesn’t like talking about Keats? So, here we are: The Snowy Day (you can find lots of good activities and resources at that link).
When we talked about Peter’s Chair, my main point was that Keats leaves a lot up to the reader: in the interest of honesty, he leaves a lot of feelings and connections for readers to investigate on their own, putting the power in their hands. This is wonderful for younger readers, of course, who all too often have motivations and feelings explained to them in painstaking precision. Keats leaves it to them to sort out feelings on their own, while giving them the openings to do so in a particularly useful context.
The Snowy Day shares all of these excellent qualities, but the emphasis of the book is, I think, on something a little different and a little more simple: the context. The whole layout and premise of the book is so simple, so lovely, so perfect, in fact, that I almost have nothing to say apart from “just look at it,” but I’m me, so I never quite have nothing to say. I’m so sorry about that: I will never have nothing to say about children’s books.
And yet Ezra Jack Keats’s genius is in what he doesn’t say, isn’t it? He doesn’t tell us, for example, that Peter is excited to see the snow. That he’s fascinated by the shapes his feet make in the fresh snow on the sidewalk. That he’s a little surprised by the snow falling on his head when he hits the tree with his stick. He doesn’t say that Peter’s a bit disappointed he can’t join the older boys in the snowball fight. Or that his games with the snowman and snow angel were fun compensation for that disappointment. He doesn’t tell us that the snowball melted in Peter’s pocket, or that his dream reflected his sorrow and worry at the snowball’s disappearance. He doesn’t tell us that Peter was jubilant when he found that snow was falling after all.
He doesn’t tell us any of that. The only feeling of Peter’s he tells us is that he is very sad when his snowball is gone. (And, of course, not telling anything else about his feelings gives particular force to that moment.) That’s a lot not to tell. But we know it anyway. How?
Context, context, context. Context everywhere– and, by way of conveying that context, some of the most glorious children’s book illustrations known to mankind. How many children, I wonder, have coveted that red snowsuit with the peaked hood? I know I did, and I know my Changeling has asked for it. I’d wager we’re not the only ones. Vivid details like that bring Peter’s world so perfectly to life that, as I said when writing of Peter’s Chair, we feel like we can walk right through the page and feel quite at home in Peter’s world. In Instructions, by contrast, there are rules you’d need to learn, dangers to avoid– in The Snowy Day, you’d simply join Peter on his snowy walk, admire your footprints in the snow, and relax in a warm tub of water at the end of the day. There’s no detail left unexplored, and never so much detail that you can’t leave your own mental imprint on the book.
It should be boring, this abundance of minute detail. By rights, we should all be begging for sweet release as we look at a kid walking down a snowy sidewalk. Oh, wow, right? But we’re not, because we’re with Peter. We see everything as he sees it: once again, Keats is providing us with a very precise context. In this case, we have Peter’s eyes and Peter’s mind as he walks down the street, and we find him a completely sympathetic perspective on winter. When we read as children we think, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like,” or, “Now I really want to make a snow angel!” or, of course, “I want that red snowsuit.” (Someone tell me: why has no one produced this red snowsuit?) Reading as adults, we wistfully relive those days, and shovelling doesn’t seem so very arduous as we envision that little red peaked hood. (OK, I admit: I still want it.)
In other words, we get to borrow the complete experience, not just watch it. Instead of being boring, the details are all so very personal, so very human, that they almost feel 3D. It’s odd, because the illustrations are all on the cusp of flatness: they aren’t quite flat, since Keats uses lovely shading for the snow, for example, but they don’t anywhere near approach the perfect artistic realism of A Bird Is a Bird, or the lush romantic precision of Instructions. There are large blocks of flat colour here, and they should, again, feel boring. They should feel unrealistic and blah. Except that they don’t: they give us just enough to know what we’re seeing without being distracted by foofaws and trills (much as I adore foofaws and trills, mind you). And this is where I get to the point where, as I said above, I feel like saying, “Oh, just go read the book and you’ll see!” But that’s not my job: my job is to explore the experience of reading, and why it’s so beautiful. And so.
The experience goes something like this: You open the book, and see a child looking out his window. You’re right behind him, catching the curve of his cheek and the excitement in his parted lips, so your eyes follow his to the snow. I always feel like he’s just gasped, or perhaps murmured, “Oh, wow, snow!” From that moment, you’re synthesizing that excitement with the description of where he’s going next. His arms are slightly outflung, his legs apart (you see from the picture), as he leaves the house and sees the snow piled up very high (as the words tell us): the picture shows mild amazement, the words tell us exactly what he’s looking at. We feel sympathy with him: how very high the snow must seem to a little boy! And we feel that sturdy stance: in order to make tracks through snow you do have to fling out your arms and part your legs to maintain balance, don’t you, especially when you’re little? And so you go, throughout the book, merging words and pictures.
It’s all in the details. It’s all in the context. It’s all in the precision, here. What Keats gives you is so carefully chosen, and yet he never gives you too much extra: just enough for realism, just enough to focus your attention on what matters– and always giving you those nice blank spaces to write your own experience. He gives you two dimensions on paper so that your reading can build the third dimension, inviting you in through the folds in the book’s binding.
That’s where I’ll be going this afternoon with my Changeling; I promised to read it to her when she got back from daycare. Maybe you’ll join us?