Tag Archives: mental illness

The Degenerates [released 3/17]

Written by: J. Albert Mann

Cover Art by: Design: Rebecca Syracuse; Illustration: Sarah Maxwell-Folio Art

For ages: YA (14 years and up)

Language: English

Topics Covered: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Growing Up, Mental Health, Disability, Own Voices, Interracial Love, Family, Friendship, Institutionalized Lives, Courage, Bravery, Love. 

Summary: 

This book is incredible.  I truly hope this book review does it justice, I couldn’t put it down.  We were given the opportunity to read the book before it’s released on 3/17 and I am so appreciative!  Four young girls (Rose, Alice Maxine, and London) are all institutionalized at the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, also known as the Fernald School.  Set in 1928, readers get a look inside the dismal and regimented existence that these girls as well as the rest of the inmates are subjected to.  The book is told in the four voices of the girls mentioned above, and the reader learns the schedule of the “school” and why they were abandoned there.  Using the language of the day, you can anticipate outdated terms for Down syndrome as well as learn about the eugenics movement that drove the incessant testing and measuring of intelligence leading to categories that we no longer use (but that many still use as ableist insults today).

I don’t want to give away too much, but The Degenerates is a slow burn, and made my little gay heart go pitter patter all the way until the last pages.  It’s a fantastic historically accurate book, and I’ve already told several people how much they need to read it!

In an extensive note in the back, we learn more about the author and how she developed the book from actual records found from the Fernald School, which was finally closed in 2014.  We coincidentally live very near the Fernald, so this book was of particular interest to us!  Everything in the book that a doctor or nurse says to a character was pulled from hospital records, as well as the characters names and their conditions.  The author herself is disabled, giving a personal voice to the probability that she herself would have been committed to an institution such as this one should she have been born last century.  Honestly, we probably would have been committed too, due to the criminalization of queer people in addition to the other disabled and marginalized citizens.  This adds another layer to reading the book and the heinous “care” that these individuals committed for life were given.

The Degenerates will be released on March 17th! This book was sent to us by Simon & Schuster, but all opinions are our own. This is a YA book everyone should devote a few hours to reading!

About the Author & the Cover Artist:

Jennifer+Mann_Author+Photo_2016+(1)J. Albert Mann is the author of six novels for children, with S&S Atheneum Books for Young Readers set to publish her next work of historical fiction about the Eugenics Movement and the rise of institutionalism in the United States. She is also the author of short stories and poems for children featured in Highlights for Children, where she won the Highlights Fiction Award, as well as the Highlights Editors’ Choice Award. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is the Director of the WNDB Internship Grant Committee.

selfieSarah Maxwell is an American illustrator based in London. She was born and raised in Austin, Texas, only to then travel to Paris for studies. Having lived there for over 5 years, she has made the move to travel across the pond to the UK to start a new chapter of her life.

Her work ranges from fashion illustration to animated GIFs and comics. The best way to describe her work is summed up in 4 key words: nostalgia, tenderness, femininity, and 80’s electronic music.

0-3Rebecca Syracuse is a graphic designer and illustrator, highly experienced in children’s publishing and product design.

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.