Basquiat for kids: Caldecott winner Javaka Steptoe brings ‘Radiant Child’ to LitFestKC

The young Jean-Michel Basquiat is the subject of “Radiant Child,” an award-winning picture book by Javaka Steptoe.
The young Jean-Michel Basquiat is the subject of “Radiant Child,” an award-winning picture book by Javaka Steptoe.

Twelve years ago, New York illustrator and author Javaka Steptoe went to the Brooklyn Museum to see an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art.

As Steptoe marveled at the colorful, abstract and wonderfully childlike paintings, the seed of an idea started to sprout. I should make a children’s book about Basquiat, Steptoe thought.

On the surface, Basquiat’s story might not seem kid-friendly. The controversial figure, the son of a Haitian dad and Puerto Rican mother, started as a graffiti artist in Brooklyn but quickly graduated to galleries and developed a close friendship with Andy Warhol. He struggled with depression and opposition from the fine art world until he died in 1988 of a heroin overdose at 27.

“He’s a very interesting figure in history,” Steptoe said in a recent phone interview from Atlantic City, N.J., “and a lot of the things you hear about him are negative.”

Steptoe was more intrigued by Basquiat’s early life as a creative kid who loved to draw and dreamed of becoming a famous artist. Basquiat’s mother, Matilde, took him to theaters and museums, brought him books and taught him that art lived all around him. That sweet relationship is the heart of Steptoe’s book “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” (Little, Brown and Co., 2016), which has resonated with children and critics alike.

“Radiant Child” won the 2017 Caldecott Medal and the 2017 Coretta Scott King illustrator award. Since the news was announced earlier this year, Steptoe has been traveling to libraries, schools and bookstores across the country. On Friday and Saturday, he’ll appear at LitFestKC, a Kansas City children’s literature festival, along with six other internationally known authors and illustrators (see accompanying story).

Steptoe says young readers help him understand the meaning they pull from his stories. Many children who have read “Radiant Child,” he explains, connect to Basquiat because his mother struggles with depression.

“His mother’s mind is not well, and the family breaks,” Steptoe writes in the book. “She no longer lies on the floor and draws with Jean-Michel, but sits by the window singing only to birds.”

Steptoe says almost everyone he knows has a relative who struggles with mental illness: “This is something that really needs to be talked about, you know?”

He hopes “Radiant Child” helps children talk about the issue and also see art in their everyday lives. In the book, he writes that art is in “the street games of little children, in our style and the words that we speak.”

When Steptoe was a child, art was literally everywhere he looked. His father, John Steptoe, was an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator who won Caldecott Medals for “The Story of Jumping Mouse” in 1985 and “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” in 1988.

Javaka Steptoe says that when his father was growing up, “he did not see himself in children’s books.”

“He didn’t see the full humanity of black people in movies and radio and TV. So that was a great influence on me.”

Javaka Steptoe’s other illustrated works include “Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix” (Clarion Books, 2010) and “In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers” (Lee & Low Books, 2013).

When Steptoe was a kid, his favorite book was “The Story of Ferdinand,” a 1936 classic by Munro Leaf about a bull who would rather smell flowers in a pasture than fight a matador in a ring. (A movie version is set to hit theaters this Christmas.)

“That’s a story about following your own heart,” Steptoe says.

You could say the same thing about “Radiant Child,” which was a labor of love for Steptoe.

The self-described “hunter-gatherer” incorporated meaningful objects into the collages that fill the book’s pages. Look closely and you’ll see images of wood discarded from the Brooklyn Museum, where Basquiat once took art classes, and brownstone from Brooklyn buildings similar to the artist’s childhood home.

The objects add rich texture and interesting imperfections to Steptoe’s illustrations.

When he talks to children, Steptoe tells them that perfection isn’t the goal of art.

“Art is an expression,” he says. “It’s about that moment in time.”

“Radiant Child” captures the joy that young Basquiat found in expressing himself with pencils and paint: “His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines.”

“They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird,” Steptoe writes, “but somehow still beautiful.”