Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. To kick off the Christmas Season, the girls discuss a children’s book from 1962, as well as a recent adaptation of it. Let’s hear what they had to say…
It was finally December, and Dania was curled up in the corner of the couch – her blanket tucked under her feet and a book open across her lap. She glanced up at the window, hoping to see snow falling. Nothing yet, she thought, but there were still thirty days until the New Year.
She turned the page. A blue wedge of sky cut through the pinkish snow, drawing attention to the two figures, in red and brown, walking together towards the horizon. All around the paper-cutout illustrations, snowflakes had been stamped over the scene – blue and peach, distinct against the background. She read the final line, though she could have recited it: “…and they went out together into the deep, deep snow.”
Dania released a satisfied sigh and turned to the endpaper, also decorated with the swirls and stamps of the snowfall, bringing Peter’s world to the very edges of the book itself. Closing the book, she glanced again at the cover image: the tiny Peter, bent backwards to look at his footprints in the snow.
“Have you read this book?” Dania asked Eleanor and Gwen, who sat across from her. Eleanor looked up from a mug of hot chocolate to glance at the cover.
“Yes!” Eleanor said, excitedly. “I haven’t seen that book in years. But yeah, I totally remember it. He smacks the tree and the snow falls off, right?”
“Yeah, hold on,” Dania said, reopening the book. She found the image: a two-page spread, showing the child in red with a stick, then using the stick to knock the snow off a tree. In the cutout illustrations, the snow merely lifted up from the tree, still shaped as it lay on the branches, before landing – plop! – on Peter’s head on the following page.
Eleanor put a hand to her chest. “Aww,” she cooed. “Little snow child.”
“I love this book,” Dania said. “I read it every year, it’s a holiday tradition. Little boy, running around in the snow. Such a simple book, but it just works.”
“What are we talking about?” Gwen asked, glancing up.
“Were you not listening?” Dania said.
“I have a podcast on,” Gwen said, removing earbuds. “What’s the discussion?”
“This book.” Dania held up The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats.
“Oh, that one,” Gwen said. “Right, the Caldecott winner. About the child in the snow.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Of course,” Gwen said. “It has an absolutely lovely illustration style. The paper cutouts, the clean lines – even the way he blotches the snow to give it a little color. It’s very expressive considering how simple it is.”
“It’s not just cutouts, though,” Eleanor said. “There’s a little bit of drawing on it, some details given.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s just cutouts,” Gwen said. “Doesn’t the kid not have a face, he’s only an outline?”
“There’s some facial expressions,” Dania said, passing the book. “Just on Peter, though.”
Eleanor and Gwen flipped through the book. “Yeah, see,” Eleanor said, pointing to a close-up on Peter’s face. “He had facial features. They even drew his hair on.”
“Okay, but only on him,” Gwen said. “The mom doesn’t have anything.”
“The mom, maybe,” Eleanor said. “But there’s a little detailing done on the buildings.”
Eleanor flipped through the book again. For her previous claim, she saw very little in the buildings besides their colored outlines. Even the patterns, in the mother’s dress and Peter’s wallpaper, came from the paper itself, rather than any additions by Keats.
“I don’t know,” Eleanor said. “Oh, oh, this is my favorite part ––” She turned the book around to show the others.
“He puts the snowball in his pocket…” Eleanor said, pointing to the illustration of Peter on the doorstop, before turning two pages forward. “…but then it’s gone!” she added. “It melts!”
As Eleanor and Dania laughed warmly, Gwen looked again at the image. Across the two pages, Peter stood alone in the expanse of black speckles, searching for the lost snowball. He went to bed on the facing page, and the dots expanded – the illustration providing the atmosphere as, to quote the book, “he felt very sad.”
“It’s almost theatrical,” Gwen said. “It does so much with imagery and symbolism, you don’t want to see it complicated. Just the story of Peter in the snow is enough.”
“Yeah,” Eleanor said, picking up her mug again. “Even adding more to it for the Amazon special, they kept the images from the book there.”
“What?” asked Dania and Gwen, in unison. Eleanor, raising an eyebrow, held her mug at her lips.
“The Amazon special,” she repeated. After a moment, she clarified: “Amazon made a thirty-minute animated holiday special based on the book last year.”
“What?!” Dania said, shooting up from her chair. “Where?”
“It’s on Prime,” Eleanor said. “Go find it.”
Dania flew out of the room to grab her laptop.
– – – – –
As Dania and Gwen watched the special together – huddled around Dania’s laptop, on the couch – Eleanor took a moment to read the book again. It was simpler than she remembered – like the best picture books, the dialogue was secondary to the vibrant illustrations, save for moments of excellent word choice. She watched Peter climb up the “great big tall heaping mountain of show,” and select a stick “just right for smacking a snow-covered tree.”
She also noticed – and noticed more clearly, now, after watching the special – that while the book was often billed as the first picture book centering on an African-American child, Peter’s race was never commented on, nor alluded to. The book’s barrier breaking, as much as there was – Keats himself was white – lay in the book’s nonchalance, rather than its categorization. Within the medium of a picture book, image was all that was needed to give Peter his identity.
“Ugh, it’s so cute!” Dania said, removing her earbuds as the special concluded. “And the music is so good! Boyz II Men can sing me lullabies every night.”
“You like it?” Eleanor asked.
Dania nodded, humming the theme from the special.
“It’s an interesting interpretation of the message,” Gwen said. “It’s…different.”
“What do you mean?”
“The isolation is gone,” Gwen said. “What stands out to me about the original book is Peter’s solitude throughout it. He’s the only character, aside from the mom and the snowball fight kids. That singularity gives his experience in the snow something…I’m not sure ‘holy’ is the right word, but it comes to mind.”
“Pure?” Eleanor suggested.
“That’s closer. More timeless, like a fable. The special is more about community, the people in the neighborhood. You lose perceived anti-social interpretations of the character.”
“I like the new people, though,” Dania said. “Plus, the representation is absolutely stellar. Peter’s family, with their traditions – not to mention Ahmed, Ms. Lee, a Jewish family…”
“The Spanish-speaking snowball players,” Gwen added.
“Right!” Dania agreed. “It’s like, the book is all about inclusion, with the black protagonist, and the special adds more characters to keep doing that.”
“I suppose so,” Eleanor said. “Is this the first animated special with a black child protagonist? It would be fitting, you know, since the book was the first for a children’s book.”
“Maybe?” Gwen wondered. “Can you think of another?”
“The Polar Express had the black girl, but she wasn’t the lead,” Dania suggested.
“Besides, her race isn’t really a factor in the story,” Gwen said.
There was an empty beat. Eleanor paged through the book again.
“Is Peter’s race a factor in this story?” she asked.
Gwen glanced at the ceiling, considering. “Not in the book. In the special, though…”
Gwen stopped mid-sentence. It was difficult to nail down what elements of the special made Peter’s race seem more prominent than in the picture book. Perhaps it was the special’s African-American creators: Lawrence Fishburne as producer and narrator, Boyz II Men providing the musical score, Regina King’s calming voice as the Mother.
“Maybe it’s the other characters,” she finally suggested. “The original book is so singular, that there’s no one for Peter to be ‘Other’ against.”
“Like the presence of the white, Jewish family in the special,” Eleanor said. “That makes Peter look…blacker by comparison – that sounds wrong…”
“We certainly need to word it right,” Gwen said, nervous. “It’s more like: the book is about Peter’s universal experience in the snow, in which his race doesn’t matter. In the special, his background, and the background of everyone around him, matters insofar as the neighborhood is a melting pot of different traditions.”
“So they’re both inclusive,” Eleanor concluded. “They just do it in different ways.”
“But I don’t think it’s that his race doesn’t matter in the books,” Dania added. “When I was a kid, I definitely noticed that he wasn’t white. I’m sure you did too, Eleanor.”
“I mean, duh,” Eleanor agreed. “How many children’s books had protagonists of color?”
“I suppose,” Gwen agreed.
“Even the special,” Eleanor continued. “There’s nothing in it that makes Peter’s experience, like, “authentically black,” whatever the hell that even means, or would mean. It’s different, but everyone in the special is ‘different,’ to each other.”
Dania finished the thought: “And they’re cool with it! That’s the point.”
“Exactly.” Eleanor took another sip of hot chocolate.
– – – – –
Back home for the holidays, and stuck looking over Hazel for the afternoon, Gwen remembered her conversation with her friends. She dug through bookshelves in her old room – and sure enough, discovered the book within the stacks.
“Hey Hazel,” she asked, as Hazel lazily . “I have a fun new Christmas story to tell you! Do you want to hear it?”
“Yeah!” Hazel shouted excitedly.
Gwen sat down on her couch, and Hazel wriggled her way up to her sister’s side.
“It’s called The Snowy Day.”
Gwen turned to the first page. Peter, sitting on his bed, stared out at the fresh, white world just outside his window. The slightest line in Keats’ illustration made for an eyebrow, raised in anticipation of the fun he would have in the snow.
“One morning, Peter woke up and looked out the window…”
Image Credit: Children’s Book Council
Special thanks to the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library at the Harold Washington Library Center for their access to a first-edition copy of The Snowy Day.