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Happy Anniversary: Stevie

Stevie by John Steptoe (1950–1989) was published by Life magazine and then by Harper & Row in 1969. It celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2019.

I locate the beginning of what I’ve come to call #blackboylit — literature for children and young adults that centers the experiences of boys of African descent, written and illustrated by those of African descent — with the publication of John Steptoe’s picture book Stevie in 1969. Steptoe captures the everyday interactions between two Black boys, narrator Robert and the younger Stevie, who has come to stay with Robert’s family for a period of time because his mother has to work all week. Robert is a realistic narrator: as an only child forced to share his family (he reminds us that his mother “only had one kid”), he experiences relatable feelings of resentment at Stevie’s intrusion, an unwilling burden of responsibility for him, and, eventually, begrudging acceptance of this uninvited visitor. Only when Stevie’s mother returns for him at the end of the book does Robert realize how much he will miss Stevie (an epiphany that comes over soggy cereal), noting, “We used to have some good times together.”

Fifty years after its publication, Stevie is more relevant and necessary than ever.

In my work with teachers, librarians, and school administrators, I anchor conversations about Black boys in children’s literature with the question: what are Black boys doing? And I use Stevie to explore those answers. In Steptoe’s child-friendly text and vibrant pictures, Robert and Stevie are simply living their lives as young boys do: they play with their friends, they squabble and get on each other’s nerves, they eavesdrop on “grown folks’ conversations,” and they look after each other.

The author reading with her son. Photo: Jonas Em.

Stevie exemplifies Black love on several levels: community love because the two children’s parents have some sort of kinship that allows them to share child-raising responsibilities; love between Black boys, as Robert’s affection for Stevie builds, culminating in his sadness at the departure of his friend, whom he has come to consider “kinda like a little brother.” As Robert’s bond with Stevie deepens, we even have a model for how to enter conversations about the complexities of Black boyhood (e.g., when Robert is teased by his friends for being “Bobby the babysitter,” the moment provides a rich opportunity to discuss gender stereotypes and caretaking roles).

The majority of educators in the workshops I facilitate are unfamiliar with Stevie. I play the YouTube video of Gordon from Sesame Street reading the book aloud, and when it’s over people are, in equal measure, surprised that they hadn’t known about Stevie and delighted that it exists. In group discussions, they talk about how they’re reminded of their own neighborhoods, their own children, their own students, and they leave excited to introduce the story to a new generation of readers.

Anti-Blackness is relentless, especially in our current moment. It is during these times that I find myself returning again and again to stories that affirm and extend the depicted realities of Black children. Stevie endures because not only does it allow Black children to see their realities reflected powerfully and rendered beautifully, it also celebrates Black humanity lovingly. Much like Robert’s mother, who reminds her son to “Take Stevie with you, now,” I follow her instruction to do just that. Stevie still matters fifty years later for its continuing ability to celebrate the beauty of everyday Blackness and to affirm the joy of loving Black boys for everything they are.

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.

Kim Parker

Dr. Kim Parker is Director of the Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard University, and co-chair of the Books for Black Children and Youth initiative of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement. She served on the 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards committee.

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