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A Poem for Peter: A Lyrical Illustrated Tribute to Ezra Jack Keats and the Making of the First Mainstream Children’s Book Starring a Black Child

“Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white. Bright as the day you came onto the page. From the hand of a man whose life and times, and hardships, and heritage, and heroes, and heart, and soul led him to you.”

A Poem for Peter: A Lyrical Illustrated Tribute to Ezra Jack Keats and the Making of the First Mainstream Children’s Book Starring a Black Child

The year was 1962 — the year The Beatles auditioned for the first major record label and were rejected, the year a NASA probe shot for the Moon and missed it by 22,000 miles, the year my mother was born. That year — a decade after the young Ronald McNair fought segregation at the public library, amid stacks of books with no children who looked like him, before becoming the second black human to launch into the cosmos — Ezra Jack Keats (March 11, 1916–May 6, 1983) published The Snowy Day — the first mainstream children’s book featuring a black child as the protagonist: the almost unbearably adorable, red-hooded, buoyant-spirited Peter, savoring the quintessential joy of a child’s first innocent encounter with snow.

Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz on American soil at the peak of WWI into a family of immigrant Polish Jews, had changed his name during WWII to apply for jobs when many want ads thundered “No Jews Need Apply.” He had grown up in the poorest parts of Brooklyn, had lost his father the day before his high school graduation, and had spent his life making an improbable, barely sustainable, and, for its time and place, rather countercultural living as an artist: he painted for local businesses in the third grade; he made WPA murals in the wake of the Great Depression; he illustrated Marvel Comics backgrounds. In the gloaming hour of his thirties, when he began illustrating children’s books for other authors, Keats was troubled by how the monochrome imagination of mainstream publishing failed to represent the human panoply that colored the Brooklyn of his own childhood.

When he finally earned the opportunity to write and illustrate a book of his own, he pulled down the LIFE Magazine cutout pinned above his drawing table, which had traveled with him from studio to studio for two decades — a sequence of four photographs depicting a sweet black toddler as he receives a blood test, clad in a miniature coat and scarf, his body emanating that half-impish, half-unsteady loveliness of just learning to master gravity, his radiant face a Shakespearean theater of emotional expressions. That little boy became Keats’s Peter. “I can honestly say that Peter came into being because we wanted him,” Keats later reflected.

Original art by Ezra Jack Keats from The Snowy Day. (Courtesy Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.)

In the process of telling this culturally unexampled story, Keats also invented an artistically unexampled technique, blending painting and mixed-media collage, fusing elements of Japanese, Italian, and Scandinavian traditions with a style all his own, just like the America of his childhood had interleaved such variegated cultures into a shared canopy of possibility.

“As an African American child growing up in the 1960s, at a time when I didn’t see others like me in children’s books, I was profoundly affected by the expressiveness of Keats’s illustrations,” recounts Brooklyn-based author Andrea Davis Pinkney, born the year Keats’s trailblazing masterpiece won the Caldecott Medal — that Nobel Prize of children’s literature, which Keats received with the humble hope that Peter would “show in his own way the wisdom of a pure heart.” Half a century after her own childhood, Pinkney teamed up with Bay Area illustrator duo Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson to pay lyrical tribute to Keats’s courage in A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day (public library) — a lovely addition to these picture-book biographies of visionaries, part tribute poem and part conceptual peek-a-boo game in verse, a kind of imaginative shadow-play telling Klein’s story while addressing the “brown-sugar boy” as he emerges, born and blessed into being, from the snowy swaddle of his author’s imagination.

The story follows Ezra’s life from his hardship-haunted childhood in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn which Alfred Kazin captured so soulfully in his memoir of loneliness and the immigrant experience, to his young adulthood in the postwar years haunted by antisemitism, the unholy ghost prompting Hannah Arendt to observe that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” to his eventual entry into the world of children’s literature — the world he soon revolutionized by drawing on his own experience of exclusion to swing open the gates of empathy in the popular imagination and unlatch the bias-bolted human heart into affectionate inclusion.

Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man who saw you for you.

We see Ezra emerge and find himself — his parents, Gussie and Benjamin, alighting to America on an immigrant-crowded ship; Mama Gussie painting in secret but not daring to dream of being be a real fine artist (“she was forced to bite down on her dreams. This made her bitter, a way Ezra never wanted to be”); Papa Benjamin concerned about little Ezra’s artistic bend (“an artist was a strange, impractical thing to be”) but eventually letting his love prevail over his pragmatic concerns and chipping from his meager paycheck to buy tubes of paint for the young artist.

And meanwhile, the world around the family goes on being a world. A generation after the pioneering trans writer Jan Morris extolled New York’s summer heat as the ultimate equalizer of society, Pinkney eulogizes the opposite season’s equalizer — the backdrop of Ezra’s Brooklyn childhood and of Peter’s story:

But when it snowed,
oh, when it snowed!
Nature’s glittery hand
painted the world’s walls a brighter shade.

Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
Because, you see, Snow is nature’s we-all blanket.
When snow spreads her sheet, we all glisten.
When Snow paints the streets, we all see her beauty.

Snow doesn’t know who’s needy or dirty
or greedy or nice.
Snow doesn’t choose where to fall.
Snow doesn’t pick a wealthy man’s doorstep
over a poor lady’s stoop.
That’s Snow’s magic.

That is also the public library’s magic. Like the young Patti Smith, who found fuel for her own talent at the local public library of her impoverished childhood, we see Ezra discover art and science books and himself at the reference room of the Brooklyn Public Library — a lovely living testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wisdom: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

As Ezra’s life unspools across the tender illustrations and lyrical verses, we begin to feel the sweet ghost of Peter-to-be haunting his creator’s imagination as Pinkney elegantly coaxes the little boy out in a peek-a-boo tease. We see Ezra immerse himself in the delight of making art for children’s books, “but the delight was all white“; we see him calling out for Peter “like a daddy looking for his lost child.” When his chance finally comes to compose and illustrate his own story, the little boy who “had been waiting to be born,” who had been “there all along,” leaps out as “Ezra’s true jubilation.”

Peter emerges in the warm embrace of Pinkney’s verse:

Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man
whose life and times,
and hardships,
and heritage,
and heroes,
and heart,
and soul
led him to you.

Yes, you, little boy,
were now in full view.
Peter!
No longer a glint in Ezra’s eye,
but a curious child on a path
to discovery.

Like a snowflake you fell,
right into our hearts.
You arrived.
A little Snowy Day surprise!
Like a crystal flake form the clouds,
you fluttered down
with your own one-of-a-kind
cutie-beauty.

Yes, you, Peter child, bubbled up
in this man,
now free to discover
the truth of your colors:
The here-I-am Red.
The look-at-me Yellow.
The proud-to-be Brown.

In the rhapsodic final pages, Pinkney turns her loving gaze wholly to Peter, to his “black-button eyes and hot-cocoa nose,” to his playful, dreamsome, snow-crunching “path in knee-deep wonder,” before she turns the same loving gaze back to his creator:

Ezra Jack Keats gave all of us a place.
A face.
A voice.

Ezra Jack Keats gave us eyes to see.
Let us celebrate the making
of what it means to be.

He dared to open a door.
He awakened a wonderland.
He brought a world of white
suddenly alive with color.

Brown-sugar child,
when you and your hue
burst onto the scene,
all of us came out to play.
Together,
flapping our wings,
rejoicing in a we-all blanket of wheeee!

Thanks to Ezra Jack Keats,
we all can be.
As bright as Snow’s everlasting wonder.

Couple A Poem for Peter with Life Doesn’t Frighten Me — Maya Angelou’s courageous verses for kids, illustrated by Basquiat — then find more inspiration and courage for young hearts in the picture-book biographies of other trailblazers: Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

BP

Ronald McNair’s Civil Disobedience: The Illustrated Story of How a Little Boy Who Grew Up to Be a Trailblazing Astronaut Fought Segregation at the Public Library

A miniature revolutionary with his eyes on the stars, his heart on the ground, and his courage lightyears beyond of his era’s horizons stands up for the future with his only ally.

Ronald McNair’s Civil Disobedience: The Illustrated Story of How a Little Boy Who Grew Up to Be a Trailblazing Astronaut Fought Segregation at the Public Library

“Knowledge sets us free… A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the sacredness of public libraries. “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be,” her contemporary James Baldwin — who had read his way from the Harlem public library to the literary pantheon — insisted in his courageous and countercultural perspective on freedom.

Ronald McNair (October 21, 1950–January 28, 1986) was nine when he took his freedom into his own small hands.

Unlike Maya Angelou, who credited a library with saving her life, McNair’s triumphant and tragic life could not have been saved even by a library — he was the age I am now when he perished aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger before the eyes of a disbelieving nation. But his life was largely made by a library — a life equal parts inspiring and improbable against the cultural constrictions of his time and place; a life of determination that rendered him the second black person to launch into space, a decade and a half after a visionary children’s book first dared imagine the possibility.

A quarter century after McNair’s untimely death, a contemporary children’s book set out to broaden the landscape of possibility for generations to come by celebrating the formative fortitude of his trailblazing life.

Ron’s Big Mission (public library) by lyricist, scriptwriter, and teacher Rose Blue and former U.S. Navy journalist Corinne J. Naden, illustrated by Don Tate — a lovely addition to these emboldening picture-book biographies of cultural heroes — tells the story of a summer day in the segregated South in 1959 when the young Ron, a voracious reader with a passion for airplanes and dreams of becoming a pilot, awakens with the daring determination to bring home a book from the library checked out under his own name. He knows this is not allowed — he has devoured countless books at the library, but he knows that only white people are allowed to check them out. He also knows, with the clarity that children have in seeing into the unalloyed heart of reality, that whatever justification the grownups in power might have for this rule, there is no justice and humanity in it.

On the wings of his purehearted enthusiasm to dismantle the hypocrisies of the system, Ron races past the local baker offering him a fresh-baked donut, past his friend Carl shooting hoops, and into the library as the day’s first visitor.

The head librarian greets him warmly, delighted to see the young reader who has become “her best customer.” Ron waves back and heads straight for the shelves. After the usual disappointment of finding hardly any books with children who look like him, he opts for the impersonal consolation of machines, pulling out a few books about airplanes.

When another regular patron of the library — a kindly older white lady — offers to check the books out for him, Ron thanks her but declines. He heads to the front desk and lays the books on the counter. The desk clerk doesn’t even look at him.

With a child’s benevolence of interpretation, he thinks at first that she simply hasn’t heard him. But when she continues to disregard him, he does the most logical thing, by the undiluted logic we adults have relinquished in favor of the polite pretensions we call propriety: He jumps on the counter, then calmly restates his wish to check out the books.

Everyone is aghast.

Ron is reminded of the rule.

Still polite but still standing on the counter, he simply restates his wish — a small boy’s enormous act that would have made Thoreau proud as America’s premier champion of civil disobedience and ardent lover of public libraries.

Other patrons are staring. The library staff are stumped. Finally, they call the police. Two policemen arrive immediately. “Let someone check out the books for you, son,” one of them pleads with Ron. Ron refuses.

The head librarian then turns to the ultimate authority — Ron’s mother.

When Mrs. McNair arrives, she too reminds Ron of the rule — the rule he has known all along, the rule that is not a matter of reminding but of resisting. When this nine-year-old revolutionary states simply that the rule is wrong and unfair, and asks why he can’t check out books like everyone else, all the adults look at each other and grow silent.

The head librarian stares into the empty space as pandemonium enfolds the empty rule, then looks at Ron — this largehearted, hardheaded, hungry-brained boy, her very best customer. And she knows instantly what she must do.

In a testament to Hannah Arendt’s superb contemporaneous inquiry into the only effective antidote to the normalization of evil and her insistence that “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not [and] no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation,” the librarian disappears into her office as Mrs. McNair and the policemen continue trying to sway Ron.

When she emerges a few minutes later, she hands Ron a library card with his very own name on it. Beaming with his triumph and with gratitude to his sole ally in this act of resistance on the small scale of the personal, with the colossal stakes of the political, he hands the card to the desk clerk as he politely restates his wish to check out the books.

She stamps it.

The rest is history, and it is the making of a future — Ron’s own future as a trailblazer who devoted his life to the ultimate unifying force, our shared cosmic belonging, and the futures of generations for whom he modeled the courage of rewriting the dominant narrative of permission and possibility. Today, a Space Shuttle graces the mural on the walls of the children’s room at the Lake City public library in South Carolina, where all children are allowed to check out any book they wish, including books starring children who look a lot like them.

Complement Ron’s Big Mission with What Miss Mitchell Saw — a lyrical picture-book about astronomer Maria Mitchell, who blazed the way for women in science — and a moving remembrance of Ronald McNair by his brother, then revisit astronaut Leland Melvin — the thirteenth black astronaut to leave Earth’s atmosphere, and among the fraction of a fraction of one percent of our species to have seen the splendor of our planet’s canopy from space — reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest.

For other picture-book biographies of visionaries who have changed the way we understand and live life, savor the illustrated stories of Wangari Maathai, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

BP

Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“Until each breath refuses they, those, them…”

Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“When we come to it,” Maya Angelou beckoned in her stunning cosmic vision for humanity, “when the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate…” Then, she bent the mind in language to remind us, and only then will we have risen to our cosmic destiny — a destiny built on the discipline of never forgetting, never daring let ourselves forget, our shared cosmic belonging. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.    Remember?” But we do forget, and so the minstrel show of hate remains with us; the curtain falls, only to rise again, as if to affirm Zadie Smith’s poignant observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

It is especially in times of uncertainty, in tremulous times of fear and loss, that the curtain rises and the minstrel show resumes — a show of hate that can be as vicious and pointed as the murderous violence human beings are capable of directing at one another, or as ambient and slow-seething as the deadly disregard for the universe of non-human lives with which we share this fragile, irreplaceable planet. “We don’t know where we belong,” Annie Dillard wrote in her gorgeous meditation on our search for meaning, “but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery.”

How to end the mockery and the minstrel show is what poet Jane Hirshfield — one of the most unboastfully courageous voices of our time, an ordained Buddhist, a more-than-humanitarian: a planetarian — explores in “Spell to Be Said against Hatred,” a miniature masterwork of quiet, surefooted insistence and persistence. Included in the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy (public library) alongside contributions by Jericho Brown, Ellen Bass, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, it is inhaled into life here by musician, activist, fellow more-than-humanitarian, and my darling friend Amanda Palmer.

SPELL TO BE SAID AGAINST HATRED
by Jane Hirshfield

Until each breath refuses they, those, them.
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book’s first page says, “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another. Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly: I.
Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless table.
Until the unsurprised unbidden knees find themselves bending. Until fear bows to its object as a bird’s shadow bows to its bird. Until the ache of the solitude inside the hands, the ribs, the ankles. Until the sound the mouse makes inside the mouth of the cat. Until the inaudible acids bathing the coral.
Until what feels no one’s weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one’s earning is no longer taken.
Until grief, pity, confusion, laughter, longing know themselves mirrors.
Until by we we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by I we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and
sounding and vanishing completely.
Until by until we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the
hunger, the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.

“Spell to Be Said against Hatred” was originally published in Hirshfield’s altogether soul-resuscitating collection Ledger (public library), which also gave us the wonderful “Today, Another Universe.” Complement it with Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity” and a soulful reading of Hirshfield’s splendid succor for resilience, “The Weighing,” then revisit Amanda’s enchanting readings of “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, and “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry.

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Wonder and the Sacred Search for Truth: Ann Druyan on Why the Scientific Method Is Like Love

An invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”

Wonder and the Sacred Search for Truth: Ann Druyan on Why the Scientific Method Is Like Love

“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet / Traveling through casual space / Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns / To a destination where all signs tell us / It is possible and imperative that we learn / A brave and startling truth…” So begins Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, one of the most beautiful and poignant poems ever written — a poem that flew to space, a poem that came from space: a poem inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot — his lyrical meditation on the landmark photograph of Earth, which the Voyager spacecraft took in 1990 as an afterthought upon completing its unprecedented photographic survey of our Solar System, and which Sagan spent years petitioning NASA to permit.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph captured by the Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL)

The Voyager, which had sailed into space thirteen years earlier, carried alongside its instruments The Golden Record — a visionary, intensely poetic effort to capture the essence of Earth in sounds and images that would convey to another planetary civilization across spacetime, and, perhaps even more vitally in the middle of the Cold War, mirror back to us who and what we are: a single symphonic species.

Tasked with the impossible, inspired work of distilling that essence was the project’s creative director, Ann Druyan. In the course of composing the record, Sagan and Druyan, to their own wonder-stricken surprise, found themselves composing a stunning love story with their lives. They spent the remaining two decades of Sagan’s life fathoming and figuring the universe together — writing poetic inquiries into the origin of comets, dreaming up children’s book ideas, collaborating on the iconic 1980 television series turned book Cosmos, which The Library of Congress listed among 88 books to have shaped the country’s conscience, alongside epoch-making triumphs of courage and vision that have changed the course of culture and the understanding of nature — books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Two decades after Sagan’s death — decades coruscating with dazzling scientific discoveries that have disquieted us into shedding more myths and beholding more of reality — Druyan picked up the thread of wonder to write and produce a continuation of Cosmos, starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and soaring into these new frontiers of our ever-evolving understanding of space and time. In the companion book, Cosmos: Possible Worlds (public library), she extends an invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”

Tracing our cosmic story — from the cyanobacteria through which life first bloomed on our rocky world billions of years ago to our search for life on possible worlds many lightyears away; from the cave walls on which early humans first mapped their spatial coordinates to the Rube Goldberg machine of discoveries that led to the lasers with which these caves are now studied; from the symbiotic evolution of plants and the pollinators that feast on them to the Russian scientists who starved to death in a murderous dictatorship to protect their precious collection of seeds ensuring our planet’s biodiversity far beyond their lifetimes — Druyan takes up the mission not as a scientist herself but as a lifelong student and steward of the scientific mindscape, a self-described “hunter-gatherer of stories”: stories that begin with the human, with individual scientists or teams of scientists, and beget the cosmic, parting the curtain to let in a few more golden rays of reality, chiseling some precious fragment of knowledge from the immense monolith of the unknown.

At the center of her expansive reach into past and future is a lucid, luminous look at the realities and responsibilities the present is calling us to rise to — an inquiry into what it would take for us to transcend our human limitations and foibles so that we may endure as stewards rather than destroyers of this irreplaceable planet. In a testament to the fundamental fact that science is “a truly human endeavor,” Druyan writes:

Science, like love, is a means to that transcendence, to that soaring experience of the oneness of being fully alive. The scientific approach to nature and my understanding of love are the same: Love asks us to get beyond the infantile projections of our personal hopes and fears, to embrace the other’s reality. This kind of unflinching love never stops daring to go deeper, to reach higher.

This is precisely the way that science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching. It is a never ending lesson in humility. The vastness of the universe — and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable — is out of reach to the arrogant. This cosmos only fully admits those who listen carefully for the inner voice reminding us to remember we might be wrong. What’s real must matter more to us than what we wish to believe.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Learning not to confuse the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence is, of course, one of the greatest, most difficult triumphs of our growth — as individuals, as societies, and as a species. In consonance with the tenets of Sagan’s timeless Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, Druyan offers her simple, elegant formula for telling the two apart:

Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. And question everything, including authority. Do these things and the cosmos is yours.

She opens and closes the book with the words of Albert Einstein, spoken at the 1939 World’s Fair, where he had gone to leave a time-capsule of wisdom for posterity:

If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of the people.

I am reminded — by Einstein’s words, by Druyan’s endeavor — of John F. Kennedy’s miraculous defense of poetry: “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” The man whose unassailable vision had landed the first human foot on another celestial body understood that in the poetry of reality, every portal of wonder, be it art or science, is a portal to truth. Sometimes — if our passion and persistence are great enough, if chance rolls its impartial dice suitably enough — it is a portal to “a brave and starling truth.”

What emerges from Druyan’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a rosary of such shimmering sometimeses. Complement it with poet Marie Howe’s stunning ode to the singularity of our cosmic belonging, then revisit physicist Brian Greene on wresting the poetry of existence from an aloof universe and Carl Sagan on how to live with the unknown.

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