Sunday, January 18, 2009


Amazing amount of excitement, anticipation, and i expect resentment and suppressed fear right now around the obama inauguration... i will try to avoid getting too deeply into politics in this blog despite my fascination with it -- i've learned the hard way over the years that there is actually some wisdom to the old warning about talking about politics and religion across the dinner table.

but obama's arrival has me thinking about someone else: old-school children's writer ezra jack keats. we learned about him as children, as the first writer to bring black characters into mainstream kid lit -- i guess i assumed he was black himself. but turns out he was of polish-jewish descent -- his dad's last name was "katz."

so first off, i love the fact that the offspring of european jews took the surname of england's greatest romantic poet (who was himself a cockney and spoke that weird rhyming slang) and created a character who resembles, both physically and in his habits of mind, the nation's first black president. (born just a few months before keats' best book was released.)

by that i mean that the protagonist of "the snowy day," 1962, who lives in that keatsian world of brooklyn-ish brownstone pastoral, shares not only a haircut but an introspective, analytical temperament with the nation's soon-to-be-leader. there are several scenes, including one of peter in from the cold, soaking in the bathtub, where there are virtually no words on the page and we see him >thinking<: it's among the few images i know from kid lit that show characters in the act of reflection or imagining. (peter also shows up in another book i like, "whistle for willy.") there's a wonderfully simple illustration of his footsteps across the white snow that reminds me of the work of alt-comic artists like seth.

it's too soon to tell how obama will govern, and how he will handle this incredibly bad economy and a demoralized nation -- i will not make any predictions... but i think it's fair to say it's been a long while since we've had a president with this reflective, even poetic, temperament that we find in keats' books. (there's probably a counter-argument here that what we need is "a man of action." let's table that for the moment.)

so my final irony here is that my son ian, a blond, blue-eyed two-year-old living in the hills above 21st century los angeles, can respond so fully to the tale of a black kid walking in the snow, almost five decades ago, in a city my kid has never visited and a season he has never really experienced. the book gives ian a glimpse into a world he's never seen before.  through his enthusiasm, he's taken me there too.


Jess said...

Interesting post. Now I'll be keenly aware of trying to find other depictions of quiet-thought-in-action in kids books we have. Reminds me, I need to James a copy of "The Snowy Day" -- especially since he's been getting to know snowy New York lately.

Scott Timberg said...

yes so many kids books, like kids lives, are about physical action.... keats makes snow about as poetic as i've ever seen it... makes me almost regret it did not snow on the inauguration yesterday....