When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him.
— Ashanti proverb (from In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall)
In the late 1960s, modern African-American literature for children was just coming into its own. For some of us, the 1967 publication of Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely was a turning point, a signpost pointing the way toward the development of a substantial and worthy body of children’s literature produced by African-American writers and artists. Two years later, in 1969, John Steptoe, nineteen years old at the time, made an auspicious debut as an author-illustrator of picture books for children. The book was Stevie, which broke new ground in its use of Black vernacular English and its impressionistic art. Steptoe went on to produce fifteen other books in his lifetime, including the much-acclaimed Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. Sadly, Mufaro was his penultimate creation; John Steptoe died on August 28, 1989, one day short of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Stevie in the August 29, 1969, issue of Life magazine.
Walter Dean Myers also made his debut as a creator of children’s books in 1969, with the publication of his first book, a picture book entitled Where Does the Day Go? Although that particular book did not make the same sort of splash as Stevie, Myers would go on to become one of the most highly regarded authors of African-American literature for children and young adults. And now, the next generation is making its debut. Nearly three decades after the appearance of their fathers’ first books, Javaka Steptoe and Christopher Myers have taken their own first steps into the field of children’s books. I talked with each of them about their own work, and about following in their fathers’ paths.
Javaka Steptoe is the erstwhile little boy who was featured, along with his sister Bweela, in his father’s picture book Daddy Is a Monster . . . Sometimes. Now twenty-six, he has created the illustrations for In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, a collection of twelve poems in picture-book format published by Lee & Low. The poets, including E. Ethelbert Miller, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Johnson, and Folami Abiade, represent a mix of newer and established voices. The poems evoke a wide range of emotions and present a variety of perspectives on fathers and their relationships with their children. They also represent a rather wide range of difficulty, from the straightforward evocation of the fun of being tickled in Dakari Hru’s “Tickle Tickle,” to David A. Anderson’s tender conversation poem “Promises” (“And when / You are no longer a little boy / I will still be your daddy”), to Lenard D. Moore’s triumphant ode, “Black Father Man.”
Each poem is aptly illustrated by a different collage, ingeniously created from a resourceful collection of miscellaneous materials, such as scraps from a tin ceiling, coins, insects, seashells, buttons, and burlap, as well as cut and torn paper and paint. In Lee & Low’s fall 1997 catalog, Javaka writes about his work: “Coming up with the initial ideas . . . was easy. But bringing an idea to life — finding the right materials, composition, and style — took forever for some pieces, while others just came to me. I don’t think there is one illustration that has not been through some drastic transformation. Each of the poems was so different and I wanted to give each one its own individuality . . . I had to reinvent the book with each new poem.”
When asked about his choice of collage as the medium for these illustrations, Javaka replied, “I think it had to do with being in school. I did a lot of drawing with pencil, ink, and things like that, and when I got to school I had all these different media and techniques to play with. I was doing print-making, silk screen, and etching, and taking all sorts of drawing classes, and video and film, just seeing a lot of other people’s work. So collage seemed to come out of that.”
I asked whether he was aware of some of the artistic influences on his work. “I definitely have thought about the different types of influences. For the Sonia Sanchez poem, I thought about the African-American quilt-making tradition. I was also inspired by a mixed media piece by an African artist whose name I can’t remember. I also thought about Romare Bearden. So I took inspiration from a lot of different places. I can’t at all say that it’s totally me.”
Drawing seems to have come naturally to Javaka. His mother, artist Stephanie Douglas, also illustrated some picture books in the early 1970s. Asked about his own early art experiences and early training, he reports: “I always drew around the house. I was encouraged to do that because there was always paper and pencil and other materials around. I went to a lot of after-school programs. I went to the Children’s Art Carnival, and to an animation program at the Studio Museum of Harlem.” He reports that, although his father sometimes gave him and Bweela little “art assignments” such as tracing album covers, he felt no pressure to become an artist. In fact, he recalled that for a time he considered pursuing his interest in science. His father was instrumental, however, in Javaka attending the High School of Art and Design, the same school that he himself had attended. More recently, and in relation to his entry into book illustration, Javaka has been the beneficiary of advice and mentoring from the illustrator Pat Cummings, who encouraged him to take his portfolio to Lee & Low.
Javaka has also tried his hand at writing. “Seeds,” one of the poems in In Daddy’s Arms, is his own creation, a tribute to his father, and an acknowledgment that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” When I asked about the idea of following in his father’s footsteps, he replied, “I’ve thought about that a lot. Basically I’ve come to this really simple conclusion: I might do the same things that he does, but I can’t do them the way he did them, so I do things the way that I do them. I don’t have a problem being identified with him, but ultimately I will make my own footsteps.”
At the moment he has tentative plans for a second book. In the meantime, he enjoys bringing the arts to a new generation, teaching arts and crafts at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on weekends, and taking on assignments as artist-in-the-classroom for the American Craft Museum.
Like Javaka, Christopher Myers lives in Brooklyn, and has been drawing for as long as he can remember. Christopher started attending art school when he was thirteen. He is now twenty-three years old, and a graduate of Brown University, where he majored in American civilization and art semiotics. His first illustrated book was Shadow of the Red Moon, a science-fiction novel written by his father. Harlem, the text of which is a poem written by his father, is his picture book debut.
Christopher, who has his father’s gift for hyperbole and humor, believes that he has been thinking about illustrating children’s books “on and off for years, because every time Pop went away he brought back 3000 children’s books. And I found that as an artist, I had problems with the way a lot of children’s books tend to talk down to kids visually as well as literarily. And I thought there was a need to try and bring a certain level of sophistication to images in children’s books.”
Christopher has had several opportunities to talk to children about Harlem. “We discuss the book in terms of images you see of Harlem, and of neighborhoods like Harlem, on the news. If you’re a kid growing up in Brooklyn, or Harlem — the various Harlems of the world — you’re constantly told that your neighborhood is a scary place, and that comes into conflict with your own perceptions of the neighborhood. That’s one of the things I was trying to talk about within the visual realm of that book, and that my father was trying to talk about with the words.”
Harlem the poem is a song of praise to Harlem, its history as the cultural capital of Black America and symbol of urban Black culture and community. Since Harlem was his father’s growing-up place, not Christopher’s, I asked him about his impressions of Harlem and his familiarity with it. “I love Harlem. When I was growing up, every weekend or so, my father and I would find ourselves on 125th Street, and he’d trot me through the streets and talk about [imitating his father’s voice], ‘That was where I dropped some orange peelings, and the preacher came and made me pick them up, and then told my mom, and I got two beatings that day.’ He’d share that kind of intimate history. I began to realize that every time my family gets together, it’s Harlem that’s on their minds, it’s Harlem that happens. And in a similar way to people who are from India, from China, from Jamaica, from Tobago, or from Nigeria, you know that there’s always a part of home that’s there; and it’s the same way with Harlem. Harlem is a very different place now from when my father grew up, but it’s still the place that has formed a lot of who I am. I see ways now that, as I walk down the street, as I live my life, Harlem is a legacy, Harlem is an attitude. There’s so much within that concept of neighborhood, within that concept of family — things you carry with you that transcend generations.”
As an artist, Christopher’s path inside the field of children’s books may eventually diverge from his writer father’s, but so far they have overlapped. I asked Christopher about how they collaborated on Harlem. The poems and the art, it turns out, were created separately, rather than collaboratively, “because we’ve got different visions. His consciousness and sense of place deal a lot more with a concrete history, whereas I am thinking in a more visual way. To see how those different visions rubbed up against each other was what made the book exciting for both of us to work on, and I hope, exciting to read.” The illustrations in Harlem, like those of In Daddy’s Arms, are collages. I asked Christopher to talk about his choice of that medium. “One of the things that I have been working on in my own artwork is the idea of re-figuring popular images of African Americans. With this book I tried to do that in a really concrete way. I gathered magazines, the magazines that we use to define ourselves and the magazines others use to define us — Essence, Ebony, Vibe, Source, etc. — and I cut them apart and literally re-figured them in terms of images that I’m interested in. Then I took a lot of photos; I looked at a lot of photos; I thought a lot about just how we are depicted. I think that we need to transcend the simplicity of the statement, ‘I want a positive image.’ When we say that, what too many of us mean is ‘I want an upper-middle-class image.’ You’ve got to try to find the beauty in where you are or where you have been. There’s beauty wherever you look, but the question is, What kind of beauty are we willing to see? This is what I tried to do with the formal qualities of the book, as well as trying to make it painterly.”
Because historically the African-American artist most closely associated with collage is Romare Bearden, I asked Christopher if he was conscious of Bearden as an influence, or of any other artistic influences in his own work. “Oh, Lord, yes. It absolutely spans from Romare Bearden, but I also tried to deal with some less well known artists. I’m really interested in William H. Johnson’s work, as well as the work of David Hammond, who is a sculptor in New York. I tried to deal with that in terms of a sensibility as well as a subject matter. Another thing that was important to me in terms of the book was to try to deal with the architecture of urban spaces, and the architecture of Harlem. You’ll never find a place as full of red brick and fences as Harlem. That was very much a deciding factor in how I thought about the book. As much as the people, it’s about the space. It’s about red bricks and fences, and what does that mean, what does that do to your head?”
I also noted that collage was the medium chosen by Javaka Steptoe and wondered if Christopher saw a trend or a connection: “I think that collage is one of those central metaphors of the African diaspora. A lot of art — be it jazz, be it blues, be it musical forms, be it artistic forms, be it dance forms — is oftentimes a collage of other forms. It’s about making do, it’s about economic factors that we had in our past. This is part of what quilt-making is for me right now. It’s about taking those little pieces of something and putting them together. I think that’s why we have such giants of collage — Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence — because as Black people we have a special relationship to it.”
It appears that Christopher is in children’s book illustration to stay. Two future books are already in progress, one a “paean to urban beauty,” in which he explores the architecture of urban spaces through the persona of a black cat, the other a piece about public sculpture that explores ideas about “who we valorize and how we valorize them.” He also continues to create in other artforms, such as sculpture, which he sees as possibly the most accessible, yet the most neglected, artform in terms of what we offer to children. He is currently engaged in sewing, making flags “in a quilty style,” which he says has been changing his outlook on “what work is, and what visual work is, and how much that might be related to labor and gender and ideas like that.”
Thirty years ago John Steptoe, Walter Dean Myers, Jerry Pinkney, Eloise Greenfield, and Donald Crews were publishing their first books, the vanguard of a new era in African-American children’s literature. With the entry of their children — Javaka and Christopher as well as Brian and Myles Pinkney, Monica Greenfield, and Nina Crews — into the field of children’s literature, we have reached another important moment in the history of this literature. This is the first generation of African Americans who have had the opportunity to grow up in households in which children’s literature was the family business, and the possibility that one could grow up to have a career writing or illustrating children’s books was as likely as any other. Their fathers — and mothers — blazed the trail, and I for one am grateful that their offspring have chosen to follow.
From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books.
Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.