Books And More

A Chat with Javaka Steptoe

The author and illustrator took home the Randolph Caldecott Medal for his book, Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

January 24, 2017

Author and Illustrator Javaka Steptoe won a medal for his book, Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Each year, the Randolph Caldecott Medal is given to the best picture book for children. The 2017 winner is Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. The Caldecott and other Youth Media Awards are given out each year by the American Library Association (ALA). Steptoe’s book also received the ALA’s Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award.

Radiant Child tells the true story of Basquiat, a well-known artist who lived in New York City in the 1980s. Steptoe used bright colors and large collages to illustrate the book. He spoke to TFK on the day the award winners were announced.


Were you a fan of Basquiat before you made this book?


I was a big fan. I have been looking at his work since high school. The images and the icons that he used were a part of my language. They were what I was seeing in graffiti, and also reading about at that time.

When I was older, I saw an exhibit of his work at the Brooklyn Museum. Looking at it with more mature eyes, I saw it differently that I did when I was a kid. To me, that’s the mark of great art.


What kind of research did you do to make this book?


I tried to get as much information as possible from different sources. I looked at all the different documentaries about his life, and I read a lot of books, including a bunch of art books. I learned about the different relationships he had with other artists, and the collaborations he made. Also, he made music, so I listened to his music and I also listened to the music that he produced.


How long did it take you to create Radiant Child?


I spent more than five years working on this book. It was a labor of love.


How did you make the illustrations in the book? What materials did you use?


I would say mostly collage and paint. I wanted to honor his style, and not try to copy it. I didn’t want to have my art and his art fight. I tried to create a way for our art to dance. So I looked at the things we had in common. He drew and painted on found objects. I decided to use wood, since wood was easily accessible. A lot his art was made on wood so I thought that made sense.


Is it very different to illustrate nonfiction books and fiction books?


Yes. In nonfiction books, you want to give facts and tell the right story. Basquiat has living family members, and I didn’t want to disrespect his family. I was very careful about the subject matter that I chose, how I wanted to write about it. My intention was to show my love for his work and to tell his story in a way that wasn’t being told.


What do you hope kids will take away from this book?


I hope kids will love and appreciate Basquiat’s artwork. I hope they will understand that it takes love in order to accomplish things in life. When you are doing something you really love, it looks different than the things you are doing just because you have to do them. Find that thing that you want to pour your all into, and believe in yourself.

Also, if you are able to look at a problem you have in a different way, then you will find a solution.

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