There are those very special books regardless of all of the above we would read anyway due to their initial sensory impact. Radiant Child: The Story Of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown And Company, October 25, 2016) written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe is one of those books. There is a resonant ring to the first two words in the title. Take a moment to read them out loud once, twice and three times. Without a doubt you are drawn to the front of the dust jacket. Who is this man? And what does Javaka Steptoe have to say about him?
Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous ARTIST.
Jean-Michel works daily drawing and drawing focused on creating the very best. He gets up in the middle of the night, confident a line here or a line there will make his work more perfect. His art is a wild splash of color and shapes and beauty.
His mother, Matilde, is his inspiration. Her artistic talents lie in design and sewing. Through her cooking and cleaning their home looks ready for pictures in a magazine. She teaches him art is found everywhere; literature, museums, theaters and the city in which he lives. He always comes home from these visits and makes more art.
After an accident Mama Matilde gives him a book about the human body and its bones to calm his fears. He draws from this book feeling comfort. But his complete healing is short-lived. His mama is taken from their home. Her mind is sick. Heartbroken Jean-Michel keeps on drawing, his emotions bursting from his art. He visits his mother assuring her he will be famous.
As a teenager Jean-Michel leaves Brooklyn for New York City. During the day he stays with friends moving from place to place leaving behind pieces of his art. At night under the name of SAMOO he spray-paints his creativity in the city. His work is noticed and now is showcased in galleries. It is a proud day as an adult when he can visit his beloved Mama Matilde and give her the good news of his success.
Don't you think the first sentence by Javaka Steptoe reads like a melody? The book, in its entirety, seems to be a lyrical symphony in tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat; each combination of words like waves of sound filled with his passion for art. Throughout the narrative single words are enlarged and written in capitals to give them emphasis; words like ARTIST, BEAUTIFUL, MATILDE and PAINT. Here is passage from the book.
Back at home, he creates art on the floor as his father, Gerard, plays jazz records. Mama Matilde cooks arroz con pollo and calls Jean-Michel "MI AMOR." The energy and life of the city can be felt in each line of his drawings.
In a note opposite the title page Javaka Steptoe talks about the artwork for this book. As Basquiat did he gathered items from New York City. He
painted on richly textured pieces of found wood harvested from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, the Dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones, and the streets of Greenwich Village and the lower East Side.
When you open the dust jacket a collage of these found elements greets your eyes; each item relevant to the subject. On the front is Jean-Michel as a child. The yellow letters of the title text are raised. To the left, on the back, he is shown as an adult with a different background filled with love. The book case uses the same pictures without any text, enlarging them slightly. The opening and closing endpapers are a pattern of white-painted objects on a blue canvas.
Every illustration spans two pages, with the exception of four single-page pictures, in stunning elegance. The wood is pieced together like a geometric puzzle lines never detracting from the captured moments but adding to the design. Looking at this artwork is like walking through an art gallery. You pause with each page turn marveling at the masterful accomplishment.
One of my favorite pictures is of Jean-Michel waking at night to add a colorful line to one of his drawings. His art hangs on his bedroom wall taped there securely. Clothed in patterned yellow pajamas he is reaching to add some blue to a dinosaur drawing. To his right we can see the moon shining over buildings on his street.
Written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe Radiant Child: The Story Of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is a striking and informative look at a unique artist. The vibrancy of the artwork and beauty in the text will linger long after the book is read. You need this biography in your professional collections. It will be a welcome addition to your personal bookshelves particularly if there is an artist in your home. In addition to the note at the beginning along with a bibliography Steptoe includes, at the end, a page with further information about Jean-Michel Basquiat, motifs and symbolism in Basquiat's work and another note.
To explore his other work and to learn about Javaka Steptoe please access his website by following the link attached to his name. Art from this book is shown at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, the blog of author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson. Javaka Steptoe speaks about this book at TeachingBooks.net. Javaka Steptoe is engaged in conversation at School Library Journal. Be sure to visit School Library Journal and listen to The Yarn Podcast, Javaka Steptoe---RADIANT CHILD Unraveled. Thank to teacher librarian Travis Jonker and educator Colby Sharp for bringing this series to us.
Please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy to view the other titles selected this week by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.
UPDATE: After his Caldecott Medal win, Javaka Steptoe stops by Publishers Weekly.