The year 2016 has been a long and arduous one for many, so somehow it seems like an eternity ago to recall Spring, when I rounded up here at Kirkus some of Fall 2016’s best picture books, ones that I thought would make a splash when their time came. One of them was Radiant Child, Javaka Steptoe’s biography of the famed illustrator Jean-Michel Basquiat.
It’s such an excellent book that I want to give it a bit more attention today, especially as I look back at 2016 and its best children’s books. Javaka’s is definitely one of those, and I’m not alone in thinking such. The book has received a handful of starred reviews and has landed, deservedly so, on multiple year-end, best-of lists.
I asked Javaka via email about this book and taking on the biography of such a complicated man.Describing the book as a labor of love, he says he’s been working on it since 2010. “I was trying to come up with an idea to follow up with the success of Jimi Sounds like a Rainbow, something I could write and illustrate. It was also around the time Tamra Davis released the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. The documentary described Jean-Michel’s journey into super art world stardom. It was, to say the least, powerful. After a bit of deliberation, I brought the idea up in a brainstorm session with my agent. Soon after, he was having drinks with Cindy Eagan and, before he could pitch the idea, she was telling him how great it would be if someone would write a children's book about Basquiat. The rest is history.”
The book covers Basquiat’s boyhood and rise to fame and doesn’t shy from his mother’s mental illness and removal from his home when he was but a boy. Javaka’s research, he explains, involved “tracking down every bit of information pertaining to or starring Basquiat.” He watched documentaries and art films; searched online sources for images, interviews, articles, and both visual and written critiques; listened to music; and visited countless locations, art events, galleries, and museums showcasing his work.
“I explored every possibility,” he says, “but most of my information came from reading art books and biographies, such as Phoebe Hoban’s Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, which was very comprehensive and full of firsthand accounts of Basquiat as a child. Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat: A Love Story provided a lot of context to the cultural landscape and the personal struggles Basquiat experienced in the downtown art scene – for example, the personal turmoil he felt over the killing of graffiti artist Michael Stewart by New York City Transit Police. Though they were not friends, he was a fellow person of color who traveled in the same circles. His death symbolized in a very jarring way the fragility of being Black in America in contrast to Basquiat’s unique position as darling of the art world. Stewart’s death became the subject of a series of paintings addressing police brutality and racism.”
Instead of having Basquiat’s work reproduced in this picture book, Javaka chose to create his own interpretations of particular pieces and motifs, as he explains in the book’s closing: “By painting them on textured pieces of wood, blending his style with mine,” he writes, “my goal was to show how his work has inspired me and to give young readers a sense of his artistic style.”
When I ask Javaka about how he approaches the illustrations—for any book—he stresses that his goal is to make the material he chooses “mean something” in the story. “My choice of wood pieces [for this book],” he explains, “represent brownstone homes in Brooklyn, gallery podiums and walls, and a multitude of re-purposed surfaces Basquiat would have painted on. It also takes the viewer on a journey from someone who draws at home on the floor to a fine artist with pieces of art on gallery walls. The construction of the last several pages reference Basquiat's work, specifically, The Art of Boxing, Beat Bop, the Basquiat and Warhol art show poster, Gold Griot, and Brother’s Sausage.”
Javaka further notes that to interpret Basquiat’s art for this book wasn’t actually as daunting as it may seem. “Basquiat's work has been part of my visual dialogue for a while,” he explains, “so it was familiar.” Instead, the challenge was choosing which paintings to interpret, highlight, and “use as inspiration for my artistic interpretations inside the illustrations and page construction.”
In this November’s interview with Megan Labrise, Javaka bemoans the fact that, in remembering Basquiat, people tend to focus too much on the more dramatic plot points of his life, such as his drug addiction. “No one is talking about his genius,” he told Labrise. He emphasizes the same to me when I ask him about the book’s reception. “I absolutely love and appreciate all of the attention this book is receiving,” he says. “Not just for me, but because people are looking at Basquiat in a different way. They are seeing more than just the ‘wild child.’ They are also seeing the radiant child; they are seeing his humanity.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
RADIANT CHILD: THE STORY OF YOUNG ARTIST JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT. Copyright © 2016 by Javaka Steptoe. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown, New York.