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He Should Have Been There All Along: Let Us Remember What Democracy Is All About

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"One winter morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see... He thought it would be fun to join the big boys in their snowball fight, but he knew he wasn't old enough- not yet." From The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats


This is the fiftieth anniversary year of this great classic in children's literature. Of his book, Keats wrote: "I wanted to convey the joy of being a little boy alive on a certain kind of day--of being for that moment. The air is cold, you touch the snow, aware of the things to which all children are so open."


The writer Sherman Alexie, winner of the National Book Award in 2007 said of this book: "It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character -- a character who resembled me physically and resembled me spiritually, in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation."


Today, in Arizona, the storm clouds of censorship have gathered and threaten our American ideal of democracy. The Tucson unified city school district has required that books for a Mexican studies curriculum be placed in the basement. Books by the author Sandra Cisneros and others are being actively discouraged from inclusion on the library shelves.


Keats said of Peter, the little boy in his books who was the first child of color to be seen in a major children's publication, that he should have been there all along.

On this, the anniversary year of The Snowy Day, let us remember what democracy is all about. That children need to find themselves in stories. And to find others. Censorship of any kind for us as an American society, where we have built a great tradition of attention to the stories of all people, is and always will be great tragedy wherever it happens and for whatever reason.

The Snowy Day was never actually about race. Peter's background was never mentioned. What was ingenious about the book was that all children can relate to Peter. He was just a little boy out in the snow. As readers, we come to literature to find ourselves, as heroes, and as ordinary travelers wandering a lonely world in search of beauty and meaning and hope and friendship. We come to literature to find others, who are perhaps on the surface not like us at all, but when we dig deeper we see, yes, that's me too. We are all Peter. Literature is in and of itself a transaction. Putting books into the basement is a loss not only for the Mexican American children who comprise over 60 percent of the Tucson unified school district, but a disaster for the 40 percent of the others as well. We all lose when we cannot know one another. Are we really so uncertain and so unsure of how stable our society is that we would become this afraid to share the perspectives of those who have experienced feelings of isolation -- or loneliness in our society or who have a different story to tell?


Recently, I read The Snowy Day to a group of Kenyan schoolchildren, living in a crowded slum in the middle of Nairobi. They have never seen snow in their lives. But they loved the book. They shared stories of how they too wished to grow big, like Peter, for reasons Keats, growing up in his childhood Brooklyn never could have dreamed nor imagined, the lives of children suffering the most unimaginable forms of poverty.


But not seeing snow doesn't mean one could not want to envision it.


The same is true with seeing ourselves, all colors, all sizes, all languages, in the pages of books. This is what democracy is all about.