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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Poem for Peter, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, with pictures by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson. Viking, Penguin. 2016. $24.99 ages 8 and up

"From the hand of a man
whose life and times,
and hardships,
and heritage,
and heroes,
and heart,
and soul
led him to you.

Yes, you, little boy ... "

As a long-time fan of Ezra Jack Keats and his work, I was delighted to learn that Andrea Davis Pinkney had written a picture book biography starring the man himself. I did not know Peter would play such a role in the telling. What a marvelous feat it is!

Using poetry to tell the story of  a child of Polish immigrants seeking refuge from the oppression of Jews, Ms. Pinkney delves deeply into his life, his love of art, his motivation to share Peter with the world in The Snowy Day. Life in America was not easy for the Keats family. 'Jacob Ezra Katz' felt the sting of discrimination in his own life.

Still, there was wonder in the world.

"But when it snowed,
oh, when it snowed!
Nature's glittery hand
painted the world's walls a brighter shade.

Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
Because, you see, Snow is nature's we-all blanket.
When Snow spreads her sheet, we all glisten.
When Snow paints the streets, we all see her beauty."

After stops and starts along his artistic path, and harboring his childhood dream of making art his life's work, Jack returned to a world where jobs were scarce for Jews ("No Jews Need Apply"). He changed his name to make life somewhat easier, and it did.

"Discrimination had formed Ezra's
understanding of what it meant to be
This also led to you, brown-sugar boy."

The photos of a cherubic, confident child - ones Ezra had cut from a Life magazine years before - and a chance in 1954 to illustrate a picture book someone else had written was just the beginning for this amazing artist.

"And then, Ezra's invitation came
to write and illustrate his own story.
And then - oh, then - you!
You popped up!
You! Ezra's true jubilation.
You had been waiting to be born.
And yet, you were there all along."

1962 - the first mainstream children's book to present a child of African-American heritage in a leading role. What a wonder! Peter was embraced by children and adults alike. He remains a favorite character for my grown kids. He will find his way into my granddaughters' hearts. Today, we continue to share Mr. Keats wonderful books in families and classrooms.

The writing is brilliant and memorable. I have returned to this book time and again to savor the telling. Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson bring their formidable talent to creating the collage images that pay respect to the man and the boy, their world and their stories. It is an impressive and unforgettable collaboration.

Back matter includes Ezra's Legacy, Keats, The Collage Poet, a bibliography and a list of sources.

"He dared to open a door.
He awakened a wonderland.
He brought a world of white
suddenly alive with color."

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