Monday, February 06, 2017

A Poem for Peter: 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour

The Sydney Taylor Book Award 2017 Blog Tour features interviews with gold and silver medalists. Visit for the full schedule of blog tour stops. Please note the last minute change: this interview appears now on Monday instead of Wednesday. The post about The Inquisitor's Tale will appear on Wednesday, February 8 on The Prosen People.

A Poem for Peter by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, is both a biography of Ezra Jack Keats and a love poem to the famous 1962 picture book he created, The Snowy Day. It was named a 2017 Sydney Taylor Honor Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Andrea, please talk about what The Snowy Day means to you personally. Did it affect your path to becoming an author yourself?

I was born in the inner-city in 1963, the same year Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day won the Caldecott medal. My parents had very limited financial resources, but they purchased that book for their young daughter. I often joke that I slept with The Snowy Day, that I cuddled with it. That's how much comfort that book brought me. It was as special as any pillow. Looking back, I now see that the book's magic -- and its personal appeal to me -- was in its main character Peter, the first African-American child featured in a mainstream book. In Peter, I found my very own brown-skinned self reflected through Keats's vision. It was a beautiful example of bookmaking that had pushed past so many boundaries. As I grew, I continued to keep all of Keats's books close by. This definitely informed my desire to write and edit books of my own someday.

In A Poem for Peter, you address Peter directly but talk about Ezra Jack Keats in the third person. Can you explain why you made that choice?

When the invitation came to craft a biography about Ezra Jack Keats, I knew right away that I wanted to create a love letter, a lyric that pays tribute to Keats's groundbreaking character, Peter. In doing so, I wove the poetic form, which I call "a tribute poem" around the structure of Keats's incredible life-story. This third-person narrative is juxtaposed with the first-person lyric that speaks directly to Peter. The interplay of the two perspectives work as two voices would when performing a duet. They are meant to harmonize, to blend a sound that would not exist when delivered separately. When sung together, they create something wholly unique.

Now that you’ve learned so much about Ezra Jack Keats, has that changed your relationship with The Snowy Day in any way?

Absolutely! As a child who grew up on The Snowy Day, and now as an adult who has shared the book with many children over the years, I now see Keats's intention through a completely different lens. For example, before writing A Poem for Peter, I didn't know that Ezra was the son of struggling immigrants who fled Poland seeking refuge from anti-Semitism. And I wasn't aware that when Ezra sought work after he returned from serving in World War II, he was forced to change his name from Jacob Jack Ezra Katz to Ezra Jacks Keats, so that he could get a job in an era where signs hung in windows saying: "Jews Need Not Apply." These facts shed new light on my understanding of how Peter came to be. Ezra had experienced discrimination himself, so was very keen on creating a book that fostered inclusion.

Andrea Davis Pinkney plays in the snow.

Keats was white, and was criticized by some for appropriating a black character. This aligns with the current concept of #OwnVoices. Most of your own books have been #OwnVoices stories, but this one is only partly so. What are your thoughts on writing outside one’s own cultural experiences? 

In the case of Ezra Jack Keats, I believe he was writing from his own experience. Keats grew up in Brooklyn, where his neighbors were black children, and kids and families of all races. He celebrated what was true to his personal experience of the world he lived in.

The terms “collage poem” and “bio poem” have been used to describe this book. Can you explain those terms and how you chose this format to tell the story?

Like the use of Keats's multi-layered visual tapestry in The Snowy Day, A Poem for Peter is written in a multi-dimensional form. Peter appears throughout the narrative in a "peekaboo" fashion, waving at the reader, as the story of Ezra's life unfolds. While writing, I wanted to create a biography that has musicality and read-aloud value, while at the same time delivers important information about such an incredible man. I sought to craft a story that feels as fun as a snowy day, filled with wonder, adventure, and discovery.

“Tikkun olam” is the Hebrew term for “repairing the world.” How does A Poem for Peter contribute to that healing?

Books can be very powerful tools. When children see themselves and others like them in the books they read -- or when they witness the experiences of cultures very different from their own on the pages of their books -- worlds open. I believe this is how repairing and healing happen. The fact that Ezra Jack Keats was the son of immigrants coming to America is relevant today. And Peter's presence as a child of color in such a pivotal book, is especially powerful-- more than fifty years after The Snowy Day was published.

What does it mean to you to win the Sydney Taylor Honor Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries?

The Sydney Taylor Award is a very bright light on the children's literature landscape. The true "prize" for A Poem for Peter is the honor of rejoicing in the legacy of Ezra Jack Keats!

Visit to learn more about the author. 


Lou and Steve, how do you co-create your art? What is the division of labor when you create an illustration together?

The process of creating artwork for each book varies. The division of labor as a result, is not possible to parse into Lou’s duties, Steve’s duties. We always try to have the person who is most skilled in a certain area take the lead, but just as often, the “less skilled” person elbows his or her way in and comes up with a surprising, fresh approach. We try to avoid providing a bifurcated answer because really, who can say if the person holding the paint brush or the person asking provocative questions while the other person paints is actually “doing the painting?”

Please describe your usual style and technique. What was it like trying pay homage to the style of Ezra Jack Keats? Did you have to do things differently than you usually do?

This is actually many questions, but we’ll try to answer all of them! As with the first answer, we don’t apply “usual” to our style and technique. We do what’s right for the book, whether it’s painting in oil and acrylics, carving on butternut wood, collaging upholstery fabric and slapping paint on it, or dragging string, palette knives or cardboard boxes through paint on canvas to create art. It was amazing and an honor to make work for a book about Ezra Keats. We weren’t trying to pay homage to his art as much as do our own, which already featured collage in many of our prior books. We didn’t do anything differently, other than overcome our fears and intimidation at putting our artwork out in a book that would also include his fabulous, iconic images.

Spread from A Poem for Peter

Did the illustrations evolve in any way during the process of creating this book?

Yup. They went from being ugly (the early stages) to being done (and hopefully no longer ugly). They also benefited enormously from input from our fantastic art director and editors.

What kind of research did you need to do in order to illustrate this book? Please share something interesting or surprising that you learned.

Lots. Tons and tons. Reading, searching through image files at libraries and online, learning about Keats, the era in which he worked—and then digging through children’s literature to learn—and at times despair—about how few people of color are represented, written about and included in the genre’s history. Unfortunately, it didn’t surprise us. What interests us is more about changing this dynamic so that children of all race and ethnic backgrounds can more often “see themselves in books.”

What has The Snowy Day meant to you in your own lives?

How about a past, present, future type answer? It has meant growing up with the belief that people of all colors have strong family networks and parents who are loving. It means that we’ve been given a real gift in that we’ve been allowed to work on this project. It obligates us to continue to create art that is inclusive and represents the diversity of human beings and experience.

What does it mean to you to win the Sydney Taylor Honor Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries?

If it results in more kids seeing this book, if it brings more children to write and tell their stories or to make art, if it spreads the word on a broader scale that literature matters now and forevermore, well, winning this award means that we’re part of a very, very cool, celebratory happening.

Visit to learn more about the illustrators.


Barbara Bietz said...


Thanks so much for sharing and celebrating A Poem for Peter. Loved these interviews!


Mia said...

What a beautiful connection to this beloved picture book. Thanks so much for sharing your great interview at the Multicultural Children's Book Day linky and for your support of our holiday!