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Lift Every Voice: My Own Origin Story

Growing up, I always loved magic. It was exciting, because I was a curious kid who devoted a good deal of brainpower to figuring out the whys of the world. This love of magic eventually manifested in a love of science — and with it science fiction — which permeated the cartoons I watched and the comic books I read, as well as my own drawings. Spider-Man bitten by a radioactive spider! The X-Men representing a new stage in human evolution! Luke Skywalker wielding the Force and his lightsaber, and rocketing around the galaxy in spaceships!

My dream was to be like these heroes, to have superpowers and special skills, and it mattered little if my powers were genetic or if they came through gadgets. In a desire to fulfill my fantasies, I would dress all in blue, with my pants tucked into my socks and a towel tucked into the neckline of my shirt, then jump from couch to couch and sing my very own theme songs. I also wrote stories and invented superheroes — costumes, powers, etc. — composing detailed drawings and physical models of their fantastic gadgetry.

Even more important than powers or gadgetry, though, were origin stories. These backstories explained everything about a hero, what powers they had and why they did certain things. Building my own origin story, I realized that if I wanted to manifest powers, my next practical step would be to go to a school that specialized in the sciences. During my last year in elementary school, I applied to and was accepted at Isaac Newton Junior High School for Math and Science, which enrolled only about one hundred students at a time.

It was perfect for me. On top of regular school subjects, we were able to perform real science — dissecting frogs, using test tubes, and learning computer programming. (These classes and activities might be common now, but look at it through the lens of an inner-city New York public school student in the 1980s.) One of my most memorable scholastic moments was when, during a test, I drew a diagram showing the polarity of a magnet to supplement the requested written explanation. My teacher was so excited by what I did, she embarrassed me with praise in front of the entire class.

I did well at Isaac Newton, but when I moved on to high school, I quickly lost the nurturing atmosphere and excitement for learning that I had grown used to, and my grades suffered. After seeing me struggle through my first year at Brooklyn Technical High School, my dad sat me down and said, Javaka, you are an artist. In your free time, I see you creating art, but I do not see you creating science experiments. I think you should go into art and design.

This was hard to take. How was I going to become a superhero now? My whole educational track thus far had been based on becoming a scientist — not a visual artist or other creative — so that I could be transformed into someone with superpowers through an experimental breakthrough or a lab accident. My teachers had preached that Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech were my best options for public education. I asked my dad why they would say this to me if it weren’t the right path to follow. He explained that my teachers were scientists, that they did think these schools were the right path for me if I was, in fact, a scientist, too. But they don’t know art, Javaka, and you are an artist.

I thought about what he’d said, about how my experimenting had always included drawing and creating but not necessarily figuring out the science behind the experiment. And since my love of science fiction included Star Trek, by Vulcan standards I could not dispute my dad’s logic. The spring after our talk, I took the admissions test for the High School of Art and Design and got in. I think I made the right decision, because no matter what path I took, I feel I would have eventually gravitated toward art. Luckily, my father interceded before I became a very different artist (or a very frustrated scientist).

Today I still love science, I still have scientific curiosity, and I still enjoy sci-fi and comics. But I am doing something I love more than anything: creating children’s books. And love is what transforms everyday people into superheroes.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

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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  1. I love this story so much.

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