A Second Look: John Steptoe's Baby Says

In his tragically short career as a picture book creator, John Steptoe received attention for his groundbreaking early books — such as Stevie and My Special Best Words — and, later on, for his lavishly detailed folktale retellings, The Story of Jumping Mouse and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. Published in 1988, a year before Steptoe died at age thirty-eight, Baby Says was deceptively simple compared to Steptoe’s other work. As a result, it goes largely overlooked.

But surely anyone who has ever shared Baby Says with a group of three-year-olds will recognize the ingenuity behind Steptoe’s repeated use of three baby words or phrases — uh, oh; no, no; and okay — which, put into context by realistic pastel illustrations, tell the familiar story of sibling rivalry and harmony. And anyone who knows Steptoe’s work will recognize Baby Says as part of a continuum.

Over the span of his twenty-year career, Steptoe returned again and again to the complexities of sibling relationships, approaching the subject each time from a slightly different angle. What remained constant was his gift for realism, first in language and later in illustrations. What changed was his artistry: as his pictures became more detailed and realistic, he depended on them to carry more of the story, and the stories themselves were more carefully crafted. Ultimately, with Baby Says, he was able to tell a story with just six words: baby; says; here; uh, oh; okay; and no.

Steptoe achieved instant celebrity with the publication of his first book, Stevie, in 1969. A few months before the book’s publication, Life magazine ran a profile of the brilliant eighteen-year-old artist. Still in high school at the time, he had signed a contract with Ursula Nordstrom at Harper. Steptoe didn’t mince words when he explained to Life why he had dropped out of Manhattan’s Art and Design High School three months prior to graduation: “I have been taught Western ideas of what a painter is, what painting is, and that stifles me because I am not a Western man. I have never felt I was a citizen of the U.S.A. — this country doesn’t speak to me. To be a black man in this society means finding out who I am.”

Although he rejected the Western values he was being taught in art classes, the illustrations in Stevie and in Steptoe’s other early works were frequently — and deservedly — compared to the expressionist master Georges Rouault. Over the next twenty years, Steptoe’s art style would develop and change from the Rouaultlike neon colors in heavy outlines to neon painted photo collages (My Special Best Words); from a muted psychedelic surrealism (Daddy Is a Monster…Sometimes) to a naturalistic realism in black and white (The Story of Jumping Mouse) and in full color (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters). But from the beginning, Steptoe’s style was polished and sophisticated, and he was recognized as a gifted picture book artist who offered an inside view of African-American experience.

Talented as Steptoe was as an artist, the 1969 Life magazine profile picked up on another facet that made Stevie groundbreaking as a picture book. It was the first children’s book to be written entirely in authentic Black English.

Sometimes people get on your nerves and they don’t mean it or nothin’ but they just bother you. Why I gotta put up with him? My momma only had one kid. I used to have a lot of fun before old stupid came to live with us.

This was such a novelty that Life magazine reprinted the entire text of Stevie to accompany their profile of Steptoe.

By his own admission, Steptoe didn’t really consider himself a writer then, let alone a literary trailblazer. He simply wrote in the voices of the children he heard around him. But he was adamant about retaining the original Black English, according to his editor Ursula Nordstrom, when she suggested he rewrite it in standard English. Wise editor that she was, she knew when to trust the artist and get out of the way.

When his own two children, Bweela and Javaka, were toddlers, Steptoe made a special point of listening in on their day-to-day interactions. Out of this study grew My Special Best Words, published five years after Stevie. “I was actually taking notes about what was happening,” he wrote in 1984, “[and] actually reporting feelings there and then. Stevie was a remembered experience. My Special Words was what was going on around me at the time.” For the first time, he claimed, writing had become a conscious process for him, and he began to think of himself as a writer as well as an illustrator. Steptoe’s keen understanding of social dynamics between young siblings and of the way they talk to each other is evident throughout the story. His two children, now a little older, appear once again in 1980 in Daddy Is a Monster…Sometimes, a story so realistically truthful about the tension that exists between parent and child that it makes some adults uncomfortable.

Published almost a decade later, Baby Says reflects an older, wiser, mellower Steptoe, still able to look realistically at sibling tension but with understated humor and clear affection. Brilliantly told in some of the first words babies speak themselves, it is a true first story, as most incidents in early childhood can be broken down into these three categories: uh, oh; no, no; and okay. Not surprisingly, the illustrations carry much of the narrative here. At first glance they appear to be relatively straightforward: as big brother plays with his blocks and a toy airplane, a baby repeatedly throws a teddy bear out of his playpen in an attempt to engage his older brother.

But there is an underlying story being told in the illustrations. Throughout the book, Steptoe uses horizontal lines to connect the two brothers, vertical lines to separate them. On the opening double-page spread, for example, the horizontal lines of the baseboard and toy truck and airplane point at big brother, while the bars on the playpen confine the baby and upright building block towers occupy big brother’s attention. Baby brother does everything in his power to destroy vertical lines by dropping his teddy bear out of his playpen over and over again, a time-tested diversionary tactic. When big brother returns the bear, it results in not just a bond of brotherly love but in a very strong horizontal line that completely fills the double-page spread (and the playpen bars are barely visible).

Baby’s second attempt to get big brother’s attention by dropping the bear results in a much more angular return, with the lines of big brother’s arm more vertical than horizontal. Baby tries again, this time with a sideways attack that not only gets big brother’s attention but sends a building block flying and releases baby from his playpen and its restricting vertical lines.

Free at last, the baby finds one more vertical empire to topple. If you’re reading the pictures just in terms of horizontal vs. vertical lines, this picture speaks for itself (despite the fact that it’s the wordiest section of text). We’ve got the original horizontal horizon line connecting the two brothers. Babies, when engaged in their chief mode of self-propelled transport, are horizontal anyway. In this case, the baby is given an even stronger horizontal presence, extended as he is by his teddy bear companion. And look at the big brother — he’s leaning forward in a way that mirrors the baby’s horizontal position, and he’s turned his attention to one of the toys that had originally extended their connecting horizon line. So things are looking very hopeful for the baby. But first, there’s this vertical structure to be gotten out of the way. In fact, all the horizontal lines point right to it. Of course, the inevitable happens, and the baby topples the tower of blocks. A dramatic wordless spread shows the big brother’s reaction to the baby’s intrusion. Interestingly, Steptoe again uses the play between vertical and horizontal lines to depict the big brother’s anger. The normally horizontal lines of his eyebrows and mouth point up and down, rather than across. To make amends, the baby reaches across the space separating the two brothers to draw them together. Once, as I was reading this aloud to a group of preschoolers, a four-year-old observed, “Look! Their heads make a heart!”

Over the years, I have read Baby Says to countless groups of preschoolers, and one of the things I’ve observed is that anyone under the age of five generally identifies with the baby rather than the older brother. This, I think, is another indication of Steptoe’s genius — to have made the big brother look much older than the baby. He appears to be about six or seven, old enough so that the sibling conflict between them can be playful. He’s also old enough so the baby will be recognized by young children as an underdog who gains the upper hand, a favorite theme among the most powerless in our society. I’ve seen three-year-olds literally roll on the floor with laughter when the baby whacks his older brother in the head with the teddy bear.

My most unforgettable read-aloud experience with this book occurred several years ago. When reading Baby Says to a story-hour group at the public library, there was a baby, not quite a year old, being held by her mother. They were actually there for the benefit of an older sibling, and the baby was merely along for the ride. Or so we all thought. But as I read the story, the baby started echoing back the text as I was reading it. “Uh, oh.” “Uh, oh.” Everyone — the parents, daycare teachers, and the other children — first reacted by laughing. But then they all began to listen, waiting for the baby to speak each line after I said it. The baby had suddenly become the book in an odd little play in which the boundary between literature and life had completely disappeared for everyone in the room. The baby spoke. And, like John Steptoe, we all listened.

 

From the September/October 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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