Andrea Davis Pinkney is the author of the new children's picture book A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day. Pinkney's many other books include The Red Pencil and Rhythm Ride. She lives in New York City.
Q: Why did you decide to write A Poem for Peter, and how groundbreaking was The Snowy Day when it was published?
A: I decided to write the book for several reasons. 2016 marks the 100th birthday of Ezra Jack Keats, who was born in March 1916, so we thought, What perfect timing!
There was more than that reason that the project resonated with me—I didn’t know a lot about Ezra Jack Keats, and I was excited to share what I learned about his vision of children’s publishing…
In 1963 Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech. A month later, four African American girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. There were two pivotal changes going on…
Then, there was a book with African American characters [it was published in 1962 and won the 1963 Caldicott Medal]. The Snowy Day was exhilarating and joyful. Ezra and his work came at the right moment. It shone a light on a brown sugar boy celebrating with a sense that had nothing to do with race. For me as a child, a lot of children really needed that.
Q: You describe the form your book is written in as “collage poetry.” Why did you choose that form for A Poem for Peter?
A: I knew right away that I didn’t want to do a narrative telling of Keats and his life and time. I felt Peter could serve as a vehicle for telling the story. Keats used collage as a visual narrative, and I wanted to use it as a poetic narrative and echo what he was doing. I was inspired by that and wanted to do the same thing.
Q: At what point in the process did you see the illustrations, and what do you see them adding to the book?
A: Typically authors do not see the artwork. I never met with Steve and Lou, though the publisher was kind enough to show me the sketches.
As it says in the reviews, Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher brilliantly pay homage to Keats and his use of collage imagery. When I saw it, I was delighted at the pairing, the use of collage verse and how they took their inspiration from Keats’s use of collage.
Q: How did you research the life of Ezra Jack Keats, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?
A: The research was very extensive. I spent a lot of time in discussions with Deborah Pope, the executive director of the Keats Foundation. I did a lot of book research, and research in the de Grummond Collection, which holds a lot of Keats’s papers, sketches, and creative memorabilia.
For me, talking to Martin Pope--the father of Deborah, he grew up with Keats in Brooklyn—illuminated what Keats was like as a boy…
His first name was Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz—he was born of Jewish immigrants. He changed his name in the face of anti-Semitism, hoping he could get a job when Jews were discriminated against.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another nonfiction book about a notable figure.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just that the book The Snowy Day—it’s amazing that it’s stood the test of time. It never goes out of style, and it has inspired so many people. Before there was so much discussion about diversity in publishing, Keats was a forerunner. I hope A Poem for Peter shows that diversity still matters.
I am a Brooklynite, and Keats was born and raised in Brooklyn. What strikes me about today and the books he did: they depict urban scenes. They celebrate graffiti, manholes, they include black and Latino children--that was never seen before.
All these years later, I know these kids, I see the graffiti and the manholes, the different ethnicities. He was a man ahead of his time, and of his time.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Andrea Davis Pinkney, please click here.