Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Written by & Illustrated by: Javaka Steptoe

For ages: 3 years and up

Language: English

Topics Covered: POC-Centric Narratives, Art, Historical Figure, Historical Events, Family, Mental Illness, Love, Graffiti, Creativity. 

Summary: This book details the life and artistic development of Basquiat, from childhood artist to New York City graffiti artist, and finally to well-known artist. Big bold collages reminiscent of Basquiat’s work take up the majority of the page.  Steptoe did not use any of Basquiat’s images for book illustrations and instead created his own in honor of Jean-Michel.  Jean-Michel is a child obsessed with creating and stays up at all hours until he has made a masterpiece.  Steptoe discusses how Basquiat’s mother will lie on the floor with him and draws, as well as take the young boy to art museums.  Jean-Michel begins to appreciate all of the things that make the world beautiful and captures them in his signature style of brightly colored images scattered over pages of paper.  Basquiat learns that art can also heal, such as when he gets hit by a car and must stay in bed.  However, his mother’s mental illness inevitably prevents her from continuing to live at home, and this is very hard for him.  They can no longer lie on the floor drawing together, and he must instead bring his artwork to the facility where she now lives.  Motivated to create, Basquiat moves to the Lower East Side from Brooklyn and spends his days creating artwork and couch surfing at friends’ apartments.  He begins to graffiti under the name Samo© and becomes well-known.  Now, he is the famous artist he always dreamed of!

After the main story is over, there is much more information about Basquiat’s life, including information about his struggles with addiction.  There is a section about motifs and symbolism in his work, as well as how Basquiat’s life and work has impacted Steptoe whose mother’s life was impacted by mental illness.  Javaka Steptoe is honest and raw in this message to readers which makes it incredibly meaningful.  Being an artist of color, Steptoe gives an in-group perspective on Basquiat and his achievements.

Reflection Questions:

  • Have you ever made art before?
  • What do you notice about Steptoe’s art in the book?
  • What does art make you feel?
  • Does different styles of art make you feel different emotions?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • Look at some of Basquiat’s paintings.  How is it similar to Javaka Steptoe’s?  Can you see how Steptoe was inspired by Basquiat?
  • Make some art imitating the style of Basquiat.  Is it easy or hard?  How do you feel when you make messy and eclectic drawings like him?
  • Find a place in your classroom, school, or community that needs a mural.  Work together as a class and pay homage to your favorite artists with the mural contents!

About the Author & Illustrator:

steptoe_javaka_lg-500x328Javaka Steptoe is an eclectic young artist, designer, and illustrator, building a national reputation as an outstanding contributor to the genre of children’s literature. His debut work, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, earned him the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a nomination for Outstanding Children’s Literature Work at the 1998 NAACP Image Awards, a finalist ranking for the Bluebonnet Award for Excellence in Children’s Books, and countless other honors. His books, Do You Know What I’ll Do? authored by Charlotte Zolotow and A Pocketful of Poems authored by Nikki Grimes, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and the ALA Booklist. Hot Day on Abbott Avenue, written by Karen English, received the 2005 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Steptoe is also the author/illustrator of The Jones Family Express. His most recent illustration projects include Rain Play by Cynthia Cotten, published in 2008 and Amiri and Odette: A Love Story by multi award winning author Walter Dean Myers, forthcoming in January 2009.

Once a model and inspiration for his late father, award winning author/illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe has established himself as an outstanding illustrator in his own right. Utilizing everyday objects, from aluminum plates to pocket lint, and sometimes illustrating with a jigsaw and paint, he delivers reflective and thoughtful collage creations filled with vitality, playful energy, and strength.

For Steptoe, “…collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, taking the scraps of life and transforming them into art forms.” As both an artist and educator, he challenges traditional notions of Black art, emphasizing the richness of our collective past through his use of family as a recurring theme and centerpiece. Steptoe explains, “I want my audience no matter what their background, to be able to enter into my world and make connections with comparable experiences in their own lives.” Having earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Steptoe is very committed to children’s education, making appearances at various schools, libraries, museums, and conferences across the country, including the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, and Reading is Fundamental, Inc.

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