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2017 CSK Illustrator Award Acceptance by Javaka Steptoe

I would like to begin by taking a moment to point out that I am in Chicago, and to recognize the contribution of another Jean to this day. For those of you who are unaware, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable — a Haitian man of African and French descent — established a trading post and settlement in the 1770s that would become known as Chicago. He is regarded as the first permanent resident of this city. Throughout American history, Haitians and those of Haitian heritage have contributed to this country in many ways, directly and indirectly, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of Radiant Child and the reason I am here today.

Twenty years ago, I stood before you on a morning just like this on a stage in Washington, DC. I was twenty years younger, and while I had a knowledge of the industry, I was still very wet behind the ears. You gave me a shiny medal and sent me into the world to make something of myself. To some of you I have always been a family member because you knew my father and loved his work, and you watched me grow up in the books he created, from Birthday to My Special Best Words to Daddy Is a Monster… Sometimes. Then I started to create books myself: In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall, The Jones Family Express, Radiant Child.

I remember the first time my father came home with a Coretta Scott King award [in 1982]. It looked very different from the medal that is given out today. It was a small plastic sculpture, a trophy with a rectangular expanse connecting two African American heads on either side. He felt a certain pride in receiving this recognition because — though many of the people in his family and neighborhood had artistic inclinations — being an artist for a living was not in the purview of those with blue collars and brown skin. It separated him from his community, the black faces he saw every day as he walked down the street, the ones he drew, painted, wrote for and about, and knew intimately. (How else could he create such compelling stories?) He created art because he did not see in mainstream books, magazines, TV shows, and movies the spectrum of beauty that he saw in his neighborhood. His art documented and validated his existence, his experiences, and those of his community. The award was a bridge to thousands of communities across America made up of black faces just like his, just like those on the rectangular expanse of the Coretta Scott King sculpture.

But his influence did not stop with the lives of black children and families. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jesse Thorn, the host of NPR’s Bullseye program, and he shared that he was especially excited to interview me because one of his favorite books as a child had been My Special Best Words. This book is about many family-related subjects, including a little boy named Javaka being potty-trained. Jesse is not black, nor is he from Brooklyn. He is a white man from California. But he identified with this story because he grew up in a working-class family, in a working-class neighborhood filled with people with artistic inclinations, white faces, and blue collars for whom being an artist for a living was not in their purview. Jesse connected to familiar experiences, settings, and situations in my father’s stories. You might say he found “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” I had a similar experience while working on Radiant Child. Though I am not culturally or geographically from a Haitian or Puerto Rican background, while researching Basquiat’s life, I found many common threads between us, such as shared Brooklyn experiences, artistic parents, mental illness in a parental figure, Lower Manhattan as a stomping ground, and New York as a backdrop to our lives.

Emboldened by that Coretta Scott King award and armed with the lessons of my father, I set out to create works of art that would change the landscape of the multicultural book market. I thought about ways I could create imagery and interesting stories that would make us more comfortable in our beauty, and would speak to the entirety of who we are and what we have accomplished as a people. I also thought about ways to reach more brown faces to help reinforce the value of their lives, to make them excited about reading, and to inspire them to pursue their hearts’ desires. To that end, I took theater classes and worked at museums and other educational institutions, learning firsthand what it means to be an educator and trying to prepare myself for the challenges I would face. Some of you followed me from book to book until Radiant Child — lucky number thirteen. You saw me take risks playing with materials and concepts, carving out a niche of my very own. This was not without struggle, sacrifice, or mistakes, but as Frank Sinatra sang it, “I did it my way.”

Seeing the struggles of my father, I often battled the fear of relying on my art to make a living. (I have always enjoyed being an artist, but never the starving.) There was also a part of me that was scared to be successful, partly because of the big shoes I had to fill being a Steptoe, partly because it was all on me. My father passed when I was seventeen, and I did not have a mentor to step in, only the life lessons my father had shared with me. I often think about how he set out, at sixteen, to create Stevie, and how there were no roadmaps or mentors for him, either. He dealt with fear and anxiety, being so young and in the position he held apart from his people. Our working-class family did not know the struggles he faced or how to help him, and I think this hurt them and caused conflict. Basquiat’s struggles were similar; he was so young and filled with big dreams. He was the “Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” navigating the terrain of his landscape alone. Though he came from a slightly more affluent existence, his relationship with his father was not that of a mentor and mentee. If he had received the proper support as a young man, could he have had a far greater impact?

* * *

Radiant ChildA “genius child” is unruly and doesn’t do things when you want them to, but in their own time. A genius child doesn’t look the way you want them to look, or say the things you want them to say, or do things the way you want them to be done. Like any child, their job is to test boundaries and to see how our world works. We love what they ultimately accomplish, but nobody wants to be around for the sloppy, ugly process, because it is often different or strange. It bucks against the normal flow of things. We fight against them and they against us, but they show us things we never thought we could see. They make the world beautiful and change it — hopefully into a better place. The purpose of a genius child is to bring growth and change.

Much like Basquiat’s mother, Matilde, my parents supported my sister, brother, and me by enrolling us in art programs, and when I wanted to be a scientist, they enrolled me in science classes at the Museum of Natural History. They supported my decision to go to Isaac Newton Middle School for Math & Science and then to Brooklyn Technical High School, even though my father knew the whole time that I was an artist. The encouragement and assistance Matilde gave to Basquiat, and my parents gave to me, was so important. As people, parents, and educators, our job is to nurture the radiant children inside us and around us. When there is not a strongly shared bond, when you totally do not understand whom you have given birth to, whom you are teaching, or who your next-door neighbor is, others must lend the needed support. This is why it takes a village to raise a genius child.

I am glad to be here, and I appreciate that my efforts have been recognized. But more than any recognition, I want this award to help me build a better bridge into communities with faces like yours and mine that need books. There is no lack of interest in books for and about people of color. I’ve seen the faces of mothers, fathers, and children light up when they find my books and other books that reflect their skin tones, cultures, and values. How do we make sure our books are being found in stores? How do we get more people of color into the publishing industry? How do we better invest in black titles and authors that have a history of earning and are in demand? How do we support independent bookstores and school libraries in diverse communities? How do we support daycare centers and Head Start programs that need books? How do we reach a demographic that the industry was not created to reach? How do we let readers know that their dreams are possible? It will not happen until we invest in new systems that address the challenges that impede these communities from being served. The kids and the families are not broken. The system is.

Publishers, let’s work more closely together to get quality books into the hands of children and families who want and need them. I’m talking about good books! Not just any books — quality books that make us laugh, that pull on our heartstrings, that make us cry. Books that we remember for the rest of our lives and that we derive life lessons from. Children’s books — especially biographies — are tools that show concrete examples of our successes and failures, and the many options we have when faced with adversity. For those of you who believe multicultural titles do not sell, I say this to you: I have received checks for over fifteen years from every book I have published with Lee & Low. They have taken the time to find places outside the system where diverse communities exist. They are invested in keeping their backlist alive and do not throw money away on projects they will not support. They publish a spectrum of multicultural books without concern about competition. I understand that you don’t want the head to compete with the tail, but you have to at least support the books in your backlist about people of color that are succeeding.

* * *

Today that block on Monroe Street looks different than when my father lived there. The faces are not all black. In fact, spaces all around the country are becoming more diverse. The landscape of America is not the same as it was, and we are at an impasse. Do we hold on to what we were? Or do we become what we can be? The best we can be is different in each stage of our lives, and as a country — as an organism — we are changing. We have the ability to create a great vision of the future, and we have the creativity, the vision, and the power to make it come true. But we also have to face the truths about who we are: We are Haitian. We are Puerto Rican. We are French. We are English. We are Pakistani. We are Egyptian. We are black. We are a conglomerate of cultures, ideas, voices, skin colors, and so much more. Some of us were here in the beginning, some of us were forced to be here, some of us came out of necessity, some came for opportunity.

Against all odds, we have made something of this place, and if we can respect one another’s truths, if we can see outside of ourselves, we can be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Representing all aspects of our society is not about fulfilling the selfish desires of a small special-interest group. It is about supplying power to the people of America.

Twenty years later, and here I am again on this stage. I have a few gray hairs, and I still have much to learn. But I’m not so wet behind the ears. I have been working hard in this business, fighting a good fight, standing on the shoulders of those who came before me. What I have learned is that I am more mature; I have made agreements with myself to always do my best. It is not about the glory — though that is helpful — but it is about the work. I want to leave a legacy behind for my father, my family, and you to be proud of. I want to help others. I realize the things I do and say always matter, though I will make mistakes sometimes. I have the same excitement about how I can change the world through my work as when I first received this award, but my vision has expanded greatly. The recognition and the acceptance that Radiant Child has received is allowing me to enter into a new phase of life, and I am thoroughly enjoying being here. With more work and more responsibility you grow and become stronger in ways you could never imagine. You accomplish goals you never thought you could. Your mind becomes sharper and you become aware of what it is you really want out of life.

So the next question is: “What am I going to do now?”

Stay tuned and you will see.

I would like to thank Jean-Michel Basquiat; my agent, Edward Necarsulmer; Cindy Egan, Connie Hsu, Deirdre Jones, Saho Fujii, Jen Keenan, Phil Caminiti, Annie McDonnell, Erika Schwartz, Saraciea Fennell, Victoria Stapleton, Jenny Choy, Megan Tingley, and everyone at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for being supportive and preparing space for me to sit and focus and work; my girlfriend, Azure; Dr. Trina Lynn Yearwood; my mother and father and family; and a host of other friends and family members who have supported me in life and on this project — some through words of encouragement and others whom I put to work painting blocks while they were conversing with me in my studio. And I would like to thank Coretta Scott King and the 2017 CSK Book Awards Jury for their support, for seeing the value of this story, and for honoring me with such a distinguished award. Thank you very much.

Javaka Steptoe is the winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, published by Little, Brown. His acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Chicago on June 25, 2017. From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2017.

Javaka Steptoe About Javaka Steptoe

Javaka Steptoe is the winner of both the 2017 Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown).

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Comments

  1. Are there bookstores in South Carolina that readily carry the types of books mentioned in your speech? Are you able to share that information?

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