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Profile of 2017 Caldecott Medal and CSK Illustrator Award winner Javaka Steptoe by Azure Thompson

Radiant ChildWhen I first met Javaka, he was on year two of his six-year journey to the birth of Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a book that we now know begins: “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.” I don’t remember at what point this opening came to him, but I do remember him asking for feedback, though not on word choice, grammar, or sentence structure. No, Javaka wanted thoughts on the spirit and essence of the text. He wanted to know if he was being true to Basquiat’s cultural experience.

Javaka’s commitment to this truth is evident in his more-than-two-decade career of illustrating black faces and bodies in various settings and situations. His first book, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, shows the diversity of relationships among black grandfathers, fathers, and children. This book garnered him the 1998 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and its portrayals of children playing basketball with their father and of a son in the arms of his father reflect Javaka’s early family life in culturally rich black neighborhoods.

Both Basquiat and Javaka grew up in Brooklyn during the migration of millions of people to the United States from islands like Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Brooklyn — and New York City to a greater extent — experienced a significant increase in its Caribbean population during the time Javaka was a child. This influx of black people brought new forms of African American dance, music, philosophies, and ways of worshiping. Javaka aims to embody this expansive vocabulary of blackness in his stories, particularly through bonds to family and place. In Radiant Child, this goal is realized through the story of a young Basquiat’s loving relationship with his mother, who nurtured his talent from an early age.

When Javaka transitioned from writing to illustrating Radiant Child, it was the first time I had seen an artist at work, and his collage process — a signature of his children’s books — was intricate. There were days when he would come home to tell me that he had seen a pile of wood near a Brooklyn brownstone or dumpster, and that he needed a hand truck to pick it up. He’d transfer these awkward, found materials to his studio, cut them into strange shapes with a saw, and put them together on the drafting table he inherited from his father. The wood would become the canvas for his painted images. I once asked him how he knew how to put the pieces together in such specific ways, and he replied, “I just know.”

Each illustration in Radiant Child is a work of genius, a combination of Javaka’s intuition and years of training and practice. The found objects used in each piece embody the “patchwork” of New York City, real and symbolic, that both Basquiat and Javaka traversed as young adults. The illustration of Basquiat walking confidently through the Lower East Side brings readers into both the energy and deterioration of the city during the 1970s. Basquiat walks alone, without the protection of his family, into a world of epidemics — heroin, AIDS, crack, and racism. But among the images of a decaying city — gray streets, dark buildings, cracks in the sidewalk — Basquiat’s graffiti on a green postal box comes to life. His work reflects the grit of the city and the diverse black culture of Brooklyn in which both Basquiat and Javaka flourished as children.

The night after Javaka won the Caldecott Medal, he told a roomful of librarians in Seattle, Washington, that the award means his voice will be amplified. It will help ensure that he continues to tell stories about the black experience, as he is committed to expanding the boundaries of how we see people of color. And it ensures that we will listen to him more than ever before.

It has been an amazing experience to see Javaka’s words and art evolve and to watch Radiant Child be recognized as the best picture book of the year. But for me, it was always the best book in the world because it affirms black people and culture, just as Javaka intended from the beginning of his career. And that’s something I think Javaka’s family, community, and even Jean-Michel Basquiat would be proud of.

Javaka Steptoe is the winner of the 2017 Caldecott Medal and CSK Illustrator Award for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown). Read Javaka Steptoe’s 2017 Caldecott Medal and CSK Illustrator Award acceptance speeches. 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. Read Javaka Steptoe’s Caldecott Medal acceptance speech and CSK Illustrator Award acceptance speech.

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Azure Thompson About Azure Thompson

Azure Thompson is a research scientist at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. She holds master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Columbia University’s Department of Sociomedical Sciences. Her life has been enriched by knowing Javaka Steptoe for nearly five years.

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