Happy Birthday to Ezra Jack Keats! Ezra Jack Keats changed the world of picture books with his 1963 Caldecott-winning book, The Snowy Day. This simple story depicting a boy’s exploring the the perfect snowy day was the one of the first full-color picture books to portray an African American protagonist. By writing and illustrating stories based on the children he saw everyday in his New York City neighborhood, Keats was one of the forerunners to opening the door for other authors and illustrators to show children of different races in picture books. Many of Keats’ other books feature the same characters, Peter from The Snowy Day and his friends. While The Snowy Day is now a standard classic for any child’s collection, on this special (and rainy!) day let’s celebrate Ezra Jack Keat’s birthday with a favorite of mine from 1968: A Letter to Amy (Penguin).
Peter invites all his friends to his birthday party but decides Amy should get a special handwritten invitation. As you may have noticed from my earlier post, I’m a sucker for a handwritten letter. There is just extra special about them and for Peter, Amy is a special friend. As in his other books, Ezra Jack Keats is always pitch perfect at capturing a child’s actions and thoughts. This is not an elaborate letter. He writes matter-of-factly, “WILL YOU PLEASE COME TO MY BIRTHDAY PARTY. PETER.” Peter’s mother has to remind him to include the date and time and he scrawls it quickly on the outside of the envelope. But when he goes to mail the letter, the stormy weather outside blows the letter from his hand and then, to make matters worse, Amy comes down the street and tries to catch the runaway letter! Peter doesn’t want to spoil the surprise so he grabs the letter from her and shoves it in the mailbox before she sees it’s for her. Amy’s feelings are hurt and Peter worries that she might not come to his birthday party.
While the story is simple and direct, it’s the attention and respect that Keats gives to children’s emotions that really makes this book wonderful. Peter knows he wants to send a special invitation to Amy that he didn’t send to the other party guests. As I’m sure you all remember, the social tightrope revolving around birthday parties as a child is difficult to navigate. What if you friends don’t get along with your other friends? Can I really invite a girl to my birthday party? What will the boys say? Peter’s mother points this out from the beginning and so the reader instantly knows the tension and anxiety involved. However, Peter never wavers with his intentions. He boldly sets forth to send the invitation, bit after he beats Amy to the letter without telling her what it was all about, he feels terrible, even though he was just trying to keep a good surprise. “Now she’ll never come to my party, thought Peter. He saw his reflection in the street. It looked all mixed up.” Here Keats uses his mastery of art to reinforce this moment of feeling “all mixed up” with an illustration of Peter’s warped reflection in a puddle. The stormy weather, highlighted by a lightning bolt when the letter is ripped out of Peter’s hands, strengthens the tension for this story.
Peter doesn’t let his others influence or sway him too much. He wants to invite Amy and he invites Amy. He wants to write her a special invitation and he so he does. And at the end when others tell him what he should wish for on his birthday candles, Peter makes his own wish. This wonderful birthday book not only celebrates friendship but also the importance of individuality. On a rainy day, after reading this book with your children or students, why not write your own letters (and maybe even design your own stamps) to mail to some of your special friends.
This wonderful treasury, Keats’s Neighborhood is a great collection of 10 of Ezra Jack Keats’s books, including A Letter to Amy, an introduction by Anita Silvey and words from children’s book illustrators who have been inspired by Ezra Jack Keats, including Jerry Pinkney and Eric Carle.
At The Carle Bookshop we specialize in backlist picture books. Backlist is bookseller talk for the not-so-new picture books that you often can’t find at other bookstores. We carry the fabulous new books too (make sure to read our weekly Top of the Shelf posts for new book recommendations), but we know what makes us unique are the shelves and shelves of picture books you remember from your childhood or books you read to your own children. Each Friday, we’ll highlight one of these special older titles in case you may have missed it or forgotten about it along the way. Let’s keep the picture book alive and loved, shall we?