Radiant Child

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by Javaka Steptoe (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016)

Let’s start 2017 with one of the most exquisite books of 2016. If you don’t know it yet, I’d bet a Picasso that three Mondays from now you’ll be hearing more about it. Truly one for the year and one for our time.

Just look.

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This is what a great book looks like when a spectacular artist creates art in honor of a spectacular artist. Javaka Steptoe writes about his process at the beginning of the book–that much like Basquiat, he used parts of New York City itself. Steptoe scavenged for discarded wood from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village to the Lower East Side. Basquiat’s art isn’t reproduced in this book about him, but the spirit of his work is alive in these found planks and paintings.

Notice too, how the wood on each page fits not-so-neatly together. It’s whole, but broken. Cuts and ridges and physical places for more art to live. Again, much like Basquiat.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. At home, they spoke three languages–four, if you include the language of art itself. Basquiat’s mother encouraged him to make and create and visit museums. She drew with him. She taught him how to see. She helped him heal.

This relationship is at the heart of the book, and is one that young readers can imagine of their own. Basquiat’s life was complicated and messy and deeply tragic. His mother was mentally ill. And yet, the book shines a light on Basquiat’s raw talent, his brilliant mind, and his loving relationship with his dear mother.

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When you consider that art and story became this creator’s voice, a clear thread of hope arises out of both the book and Basquiat’s life. We see it. We hear it. We are inspired to make and fight and do the same.

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This is the final spread in the book, and despite an exhilarating crowd of faces eager for Basquiat’s work, the text says this, “. . . above all the critics, fans, and artists he admires, the place of honor is his mother’s, a queen on a throne.” We see them there in the background, under his signature crown, and we also see them on the right, the final image in our story. A famous artist, looking toward his mother for approval. She showed him it was possible.

See how a word is occasionally visualized differently on the page? The last four instances of this design choice make a lovely little poem that succinctly reflects the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

BEAUTIFUL

MAGICAL

RADIANT, WILD, A GENIUS CHILD

HE IS NOW A FAMOUS ARTIST!

For more on Jean-Michel Basquiat, check out this film and a companion NPR piece with its director, a friend of Basquiat’s. And for more on Javaka Steptoe and his book, do give this episode of The Yarn a listen.

Update: here’s a video chat between Little, Brown and Javaka Steptoe. Wonderful stuff.

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Thanks to Little, Brown for the images in this post.  

One Comment

  • Posted January 3, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful book with me.