Over 50 years ago, Ezra Jack Keats helped a lot of people to see.
It was simple, really. He wrote and illustrated a book called The Snowy Day about a child waking up in the city to a snowy day. Peter, the little boy, bundles up in a red snowsuit and goes outside to play. He crunches footprints in the snow, makes snow angels, and slides down a mountain of snow. Peter goes home with a snowball in his pocket and tells his mom of his adventures while she takes off his wet socks. Despite a dream that the snow had melted, just like that snowball in his pocket, little Peter wakes up the next morning to new snow, and goes out with his neighbor friend to play.
The Snowy Day is not just great story with stunning pictures — with those words and images Keats opened up the eyes of his readers. At first glance, it’s just a beautifully illustrated kid’s book about a boy in a red snowsuit playing outside in the winter. While it’s never mentioned in the text, the young child is African-American. When the book was first published in 1962, it was one of the first major children’s books that featured an African-American character who wasn’t a caricature.
Keats realized that there were lots of kids who looked like Peter, but they never saw themselves in books. After it was published, a teacher who taught African-American children wrote to Keats and said, “The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves.”
Decades later, Keats’ beautiful book continues to have the power to open our eyes. We see a child play in the snow, caught up in the wonder of it. We see him as a child at play, not defined by a caricature or our assumptions of what he must be just because of how he looks or where he lives.
When Jesus tells us that the most important thing we can do is to love God and love our neighbor, he is inviting us into a way of seeing. Love has a lot to do with seeing. When we look at another person, what do we see? Are they simply a caricature based on our assumptions? Or do we see a fellow child of God, with a breadth of characteristics and possibilities, wonderfully different from us and yet also the same?
In order to love our neighbor, the stranger, and even those closest to us, we must first see them, really see them. The young boy in Keats book stepped out into that snowy day with a sense of attention and wonder, noticing small details of beauty, ready to discover and learn from everything he found. This is how we ought to encounter one another, with that same attentive way of seeing, ready to live in wonder and learn from each other.
When we do this, when we see each other for the fullness of who we are, this is how love can cover the world like that snow on a winter day. With love that starts with seeing, every one of us, including children like little Peter, can flourish.