Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review: A Poem for Peter by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson (2016)

A Poem for Peter, a new picture book biography in verse, traces Keats's life story from his childhood in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn right up to the moment he publishes A Snowy Day. Along the way, the text reveals the bits of inspiration that led to the creation of his iconic character, Peter.

I wanted to like this book, as I have always loved Ezra Jack Keats, ever since my first grade teacher led my class on an author study of his work back in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, I can't honestly say that I do like it. First of all, I would not call this book a biography. It does provide some biographical information, but only within the larger context of heavy-handed We Need Diverse Books propaganda. There is a lot of romanticizing of The Snowy Day as the first book ever to understand minorities, or to reflect urban living, and the text dwells heavily on "the brown-sugar boy" (Peter), but not as much on Keats as a person. Throughout the book, it feels as though Keats, who died in 1983, is being used as a means of promoting an agenda. The poem ascribes sentiments to Keats that he may not have held. (Is there evidence that he saw snow as an equalizer, or was he just writing a weather-themed story? His Caldecott acceptance speech doesn't mention this use of snow as a symbol, and I have found no other references.) It also heavily emphasizes the hardships in his life, making it clear that it is only because he has suffered injustice himself that he is capable of creating a character like Peter. The book feels so political, which means it also doesn't feel like a book for children.

I love The Snowy Day as much as anyone, but I love it precisely because it does not call attention to itself. The book just exists, just like all of Keats's other books, and to use it now as a model for How to Be Diverse detracts from its value as an unassuming, universal story starring a black child. I am glad to see someone recognize that not every children's book of the past was racist, since this is a common misconception, but I would have liked it more if the text had let Keats's actions and decisions speak for themselves, without the editorializing that plagues much of the poem. The fact is, even when the reader is sympathetic to a given message, nobody likes a preachy book, and it seems that this one seeks to indoctrinate rather than simply inform.

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