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Radiant Child: The Story of a Young Jean-Michel Basquiat

Radiant ChildI’ve been looking forward to writing about this book’s Caldecott possibilities ever since I reviewed it for the Magazine. This one is way up there on my top ten list for 2016. Maybe even at #1. I have a hunch it’s going to be this year’s Voice of Freedom, getting nods from Sibert, CSK, and Caldecott.

I’m guessing some people won’t know the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, but he was in the news earlier this year when sales of his paintings surpassed the expected price by several million dollars. Basquiat came on the scene in the early 1980s, around the same time as Keith Haring, and like Haring he started as a graffiti artist and died young.

Javaka Steptoe is the perfect person to tell Basquiat’s story, and he does so with passion and economy, concentrating on the aspects of Jean-Michel’s childhood that led to his unique painting style. From an early age Basquiat wanted to be a famous artist, and his mother encouraged him, taking him to museums and lying on the floor of their Brooklyn apartment with him, drawing and painting. Steptoe shows how different motifs in Basquiat’s work came to be: images from medical books because of a serious car accident at age seven; crowns to show power and strength; and words and phrases incorporated into his paintings that recall his early days as a graffiti artist.

The book’s text invokes all the senses and is punctuated with one word or phrase on each spread that’s printed in an all-caps handwritten typeface resembling Basquiat’s own writing: “Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch / and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” Steptoe’s illustrations are fully his own, but they incorporate many of Basquiat’s motifs and are painted on objects found in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village, just as Basquiat did. Even though Steptoe does not show any reproductions of Basquiat’s paintings, by the end of the book we have such an understanding of the man and his art that we would easily recognize one of his paintings.

Sometimes when books about artists do not show reproductions, I wonder if they are doing this in hopes of a Caldecott, aware of what the Terms and Criteria say about original work: “the illustrations [must be] created by this artist and no one else.” But Radiant Child exudes Basquiat’s independence and originality to such an extent that it would be an insult to think that Steptoe was making any compromises in hopes of an award.

My love for this book goes beyond the book itself. I find myself thinking about the children it will inspire: young artists of color, children of immigrants, and anyone who is different from the so-called mainstream. In the years to come, we are in danger of squelching these voices — the ones we most need to hear.

So what do you think? Who else is blown away by both the subject and the execution of this book?



Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. An absolutely stunning book! Sometimes books about artists do not include reproductions of that artist’s work simply because the permissions fees can be extremely high. I’ve encountered this myself on books I’ve edited–there’s no way to know if that’s the case here, but it’s one possibility.

  2. Angela Reynolds says:

    The colours in this book are so vivid- which is fitting for the artist they portray. The art is full of life, it moves, jumps, dances. I really like the double-spread page layout– it shows us that Basquiat cannot be contained in a single page. There are so many different perspectives, and plenty of variety, but not so much that it feels disjointed– it is a whole that makes sense. I just saw this one for the first time today, and I will be looking at it over and over. So yes, I too am blown away by this book!

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your admiration for this book. To me it is not so much a biography as it is an homage, a personal celebration, and what inspiration is all about. It makes me think of Patricia MacLachlan and Hadley Hooper’s 2014 title, The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse.

  4. …it is a palpable and vivid example of how one artist inspires another’s creativity. Hope that makes sense!

  5. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    I finally got a hold of this book for some real study rather than a quick glance. Thanks for your excellent review here. This is a remarkable book and I have great hopes for it in every way. Awards would be fantastic. Hope you are right. Inspiration to children and artists – a given. Javak Steptoe – brilliant.

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