Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wayback Wednesday - Peter's Chair (1967)

Some authors become so identified with a particular work that it sometimes is difficult to remember that they've done other titles as well. Take Maurice Sendak for example - author of a slew of amazing books, illustrator of tons more, and yet to many people he's remembered for just one book. An incredible book, to be sure, but not the be-all end-all of his literary life, no way.

Ezra Jack Keats is another artist that seems to have a similar association. To most people he's probably best known as the author and illustrator of The Snowy Day. And don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous and absolutely belongs at the tippy-top of every single recommended books list. It's one of our all-time favorite reads, so much so that a good friend gave Sprout this little cutie for his third birthday. But it's by no means the outer limit of Keats's talents, and it isn't even the only adventure to feature Peter, Snowy Day's precocious wanderer.

This week's Wayback Wednesday pick is Peter's Chair, the third Peter title (after The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie - which we also love). We first read Peter's Chair together about a year after Sprout joined our family, and for many months one or the other of these three Peter books was featured in just about every night's reading rotation. Not only are these books visually appealing - Keats did, after all, win a Caldecott for The Snowy Day - but they are full of the stuff children love: dragging sticks in the snow, building towers, exploring the neighborhood. Keats's kids are real children, not wooden creations, and you can feel their boundless energy sparking off every page.

In Peter's Chair, Keats gives our hero a dilemma to face that many kids will relate to: feeling displaced after the arrival of a younger sibling. Peter's more than a little put out to discover that all his old furniture is being painted pink for his baby sister. First the cradle, then the high chair and crib, and next up is Peter's chair. But Peter's not going to let the chair fall victim to this lunacy, so he decides to run away, taking only the important things (his dog, some cookies and his toy crocodile - and the chair, of course). Is that not just the epitome of childhood decision-making? I love Peter's prioritizing! And naturally the running-away lasts until just about lunchtime. . . .

The story of the artist behind the stories is every bit as interesting as his work. Keats grew up very poor, during the Great Depression. Though his family was proud of him, they also worried that he'd never make a living as an artist. Fortunately Keats was a beneficiary of Roosevelt's New Deal policies, working as an artist through the WPA. This gave him his start as a painter, and he turned to children's books later in his career - some of his early work was illustrating the Danny Dunn books. Keats was not himself African American (he was Jewish, and changed his name to escape anti-Semitism), and some were surprised at his choice to introduce Black characters at a time when people of color were mostly relegated to the backgrounds of children's books, if they were even present at all. He was inspired to create Peter by a series of photos he saw in a magazine; those photos, Keats has said, caused him to wonder why he had never seen a Black boy as the main character in a children's book.

Peter's Chair, like the other marvelous books by Ezra Jack Keats, epitomize multiculturalism for me in that they are thoughtful, engaging stories in which race is not a central (or even secondary) theme. Instead the focus is on the nitty-gritty of childhood life: learning to whistle, running away, finding out that a snowball won't stay forever in your jacket pocket. Sometimes these are hard lessons, but in Keats's hands the learning is joyful, not jarring.

Tonight my son fell asleep with Peter in his arms, after we yet again read Peter's Chair. That, my friends, is the mark of good literature.

Wayback Wednesday verdict? Belongs on every child's shelf

Peter's Chair by Ezra Jack Keats, published by Penguin
All ages
Source: personal collection
Sample: "He saw his crib and muttered, 'My crib. It's painted pink too.' Not far away stood his old chair. 'They didn't paint that yet!' Peter shouted. / He picked it up and ran to his room."

No comments: