Under the Sky and Over the Sea: A Cuban-American’s Reflections on Childhood Reading

By Emma Otheguy

Every Thursday afternoon the summer I was fourteen, I volunteered at story hour. The public library had a small lawn where they would set up a chair, and us teenagers would read while the younger kids sat in the grass around us. I always came straight from dance class, and I remember so clearly how the world looked from my big reading chair: my flip-flops and convertible tights, the lawn grass and its summer scent, the kids looking up at me as I looked down at them. I discovered Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There and marveled at how it could be so mysterious and yet so familiar: a goblin’s kingdom, and a protective older sister.

That summer was the first time I was aware of not being a child myself, realizing that I had changed and that my perspective in the big chair was different from that of the little faces sitting in the grass. I was finding for the first time that I could no longer go waltzing in the front door of children’s worlds, that to access the viewpoint of these kids I would have to be like Ida in Outside Over There, who reaches the goblin realm by going backwards out the window. Ida’s story reminded me of Rubén Darío’s Margarita, sailing under the sky and over the sea to reach a kingdom where stars grow like flowers. I knew by fourteen that you could not go knocking at the door to other galaxies, that they could only be reached by an angled approach, and magic.

I knew all about finding my way to outside over there, because it was an exact reflection of my experience as a child of immigrants: translating one culture for the other, figuring out if backwards out the window or sideways through the rain was the right way to help my parents understand the latest American trend. It’s what adults do when they read picture books to children, and it’s what children do when they hold two cultures within themselves. I didn’t visit Cuba until I was a teenager, and so my parents’ homes, their memories and our family and friends in Cuba, were known to me only through this act of translation. Each summer we visited our family in Puerto Rico, my parents’ attempt to sail through the sky and pluck the stars, to show us the world we couldn’t know. We walked along El Pasaje de la princesa in San Juan, and they told us about el malecón in La Habana. In Luquillo there were memories of Varadero, and in all that sun and green and salty air we tried to find Cuba, tried to reach the world we couldn’t access in the normal way, the world we could only know backwards out the window and through the rain.

I read the Narnia books, and Julie Edwards’ Mandy and Anna Elizabeth Bennett’s The Little Witch with different eyes than the other kids in my school, with a fierce identification, because I knew all about worlds tucked away in cedar for safekeeping, about gardens under lock and key, about children and parents who could visit only in magic mirrors. Cuba was all of these things to me, and in children’s books I saw the willing together of separate worlds that I associated with the gap between my parents and me, and my role in explaining the United States to them.

But for all I learned from Ida and Margarita, I couldn’t in those days close the divide between the books I read in school and those I read at home. They might as well have existed in their own separate realms, so completely inaccessible were they to one another. At home, we read poetry and picture books that my parents picked up on their travels, or that we got as gifts from family in Puerto Rico and Mexico. We read what my parents remembered of their own childhoods, like Darío’s Margarita and Martí’s Los zapaticos de rosa. Those stories were dear, and magical, and wholly confined to my life at home.

Today, Latinx children’s authors have finally brought the books of home and the books of the school and library closer together. There are too many to name in one blog post, so I will only say that it has been a tremendous privilege to read and share the titles that have been featured on this site. These books mean that children today don’t have to experience the world as divided and distant, they mean that home and town can be closer together. They mean that it’s safe to love both Sendak and Darío.

My debut picture book, Martí’s Song for Freedom, is a biography of Cuban poet and national hero José Martí, but it is more importantly the story of the connections he made between Latin America and the United States, of how he loved Cuba while living in New York. This book honors Martí’s activism and his fight for justice, and it also tells the story of how Martí learned to go outside-over-there: how he found in the sighing pine trees the sound of the Cuban palmas reales he missed so much, how he lessened the distance between Cuba and New York. He came from everywhere and was on the road to every place, he knew how to dip under the sky and over the sea, how to close the gaps between divided worlds. He used poetry and passion to accomplish it. He too, would know about picture books, and his story is for every child who learns to share and hold our diverse cultures together.

MARTÍ’S SONG FOR FREEDOM / MARTÍ Y SUS VERSOS POR LA LIBERTAD hits shelves July 17th, 2017. To learn more about the inspiration for this book, read Emma’s earlier blog post at Anansesem. MARTÍ is now available for pre-order from any retailer, and Emma is sending signed bookplates and stickers to all pre-orders. Fill out this form to get yours!

Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at http://www.emmaotheguy.com.

 

 

May 2017 Latinx Book Deals

By Cecilia Cackley

This is a monthly series keeping track of the book deals announced by Latinx writers and illustrators. The purpose of this series is to celebrate book deals by authors and illustrators in our community and to advocate for more of them. If you are an agent and you have a Latinx client who just announced a deal, you can let me know on Twitter, @citymousedc. If you are a Latinx author or illustrator writing for children or young adults, and you just got a book deal, send me a message and we will celebrate with you! Here’s to many more wonderful books in the years to come.

May 31

Jennifer M. Brown at Knopf has bought Silver Meadows Summer, a middle grade novel by Emma Otheguy, in which 11-year-old Carolina moves with her family from Puerto Rico to upstate New York so her father can find work. In their new home, Carolina’s parents encourage her to assimilate by sending her to summer camp. Publication is set for spring 2019.

Author agent: Adriana Dominguez at Full Circle Literary.

Jennifer Besser at Putnam has bought a picture book from Newbery Medalist Matt de la Peña (l.) and bestselling illustrator Loren Long. Love is a story about the strongest bond there is and the diverse and powerful ways it connects us all. Publication is slated for January 2018.

Author agent: Steven Malk at Writers House.

May 25

None.

May 23

Katherine Harrison at Knopf has acquired in a four-house auction Caldecott Honor-winner Lauren Castillo’s Our Friend Hedgehog, an illustrated chapter book about Hedgehog, her best friend Mutty, Anika May, and several forest friends, on their first adventure, and its sequel. Publication is slated for fall 2019.

Author agent: Paul Rodeen of Rodeen Literary Management.

May 18

Taylor Norman at Chronicle has bought poet Rebecca Balcárcel’s middle grade novel, Quijana, about a biracial girl who’s navigating the Guatemalan side of her family, a burgeoning crush and a cool new friend, and trying to figure out what’s going on with her little brother, who is becoming remote and hard to reach, all while trying to determine just who she is. Publication is scheduled for fall 2019.

Author agent: Katie Grimm at Don Congdon Associates.

May 16

None.

May 11

None.

May 9

Nancy Paulsen at Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books has bought world rights to The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra illustrator Ana Aranda’s first solo picture book, an as-yet-untitled exploration of the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition. Publication is slated for fall 2019.

Illustrator agent: Adriana Domínguez at Full Circle Literary.

Jessica Echeverria at Lee & Low has bought world rights to Marsha Diane Arnold’s (l.) Galápagos Girl, a picture book about a girl who lives on one of the Galápagos islands, and the various species of the island that provide her with friendship and inspiration. Pura Belpré Honor recipient Angela Dominguez will illustrate; publication is planned for fall 2018.

Illustrator agent: Linda Pratt at Wernick & Pratt Agency.

May 4

None.

May 2

None.

Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

COVER REVEAL! Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

 

Dear readers, don’t you love cover reveals? We do! They’re like sneak peeks at gorgeously wrapped gifts we’re not allowed to open until the special day arrives.

Today, we’re thrilled to share the magnificent cover of Angela Cervantes’s upcoming middle-grade novel, Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring.

But first, a bit about the story:

Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring is a middle-grade mystery about twelve-year old Paloma Marquez, who accompanies her mother on a research fellowship to her father’s birth country of Mexico, only to become entangled in a mystery involving an artifact that once belonged to the artist Frida Kahlo.

Publication is slated for Spring 2018 by Scholastic. The book cover design was created by the award-winning illustrator Rafael López. 

Enticed? So are we! Keep up with the book’s release date and other important details on Angela’s website. Also, check out the latest guest post she contributed to this blog, as well as our review of one of her best known books.

Finally, don’t miss this write-up about the incomparable Rafael López, illustrator of the cover.

Now for the cover reveal!

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About the author: Angela Cervantes was born and raised in Kansas. Most of her childhood was spent in Topeka, Kansas living in the Mexican-American community of Oakland. Her family also spent a lot of time in El Dorado and Wichita visiting a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins on weekends.

Angela graduated from the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) with a degree in English. After KU, she moved to Brownsville, Texas. In Brownsville, Angela was introduced to the music of Selena, ceviche, and learned to two-step. After Brownsville, Angela moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, where for two years she taught High School English and literature. In 2003, Angela returned to Kansas City, completed an MBA, co-founded Las Poetas, an all-female poetry group, and began working at an international children’s organization.

In 2005, Angela’s short story, “Pork Chop Sandwiches” was published in Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul. In 2007, she won third place for Creative Nonfiction in the Missouri Review’s audio competition for her story “House of Women” and Kansas City Voices’ Best of Prose Award (Whispering Prairie Press) for her short story, “Ten Hail Marys”. In 2008, she was recognized as one of Kansas City’s Emerging Writers by the Kansas City Star Magazine. In 2014, she was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.Com.

Angela’s first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found [Scholastic Press; 2013], won Best Youth Chapter Fiction Book in the International Latino Book Awards. Angela’s second middle-grade novel, Allie, First At Last, was released Spring 2016. See FAQs about the author.

About the illustrator: Raised in Mexico City, Rafael López makes his home part of the year in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as well as in San Diego, California. He credits Mexican surrealism as a major artistic influence. Besides his Pura Belpré medals and honors, Rafael is also a double recipient of the Américas Award. For more about his work, including poster illustrations and a mural project in San Diego that is the subject of a new picture book, Maybe Something Beautiful, visit his official website.

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 5: Alyssa Bermudez, Elisa Chavarri and Zara Gonzalez Hoang

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This is the fifth in a series of posts spotlighting Latina illustrators of picture books. Some of these artists have been creating children’s books for many years, while others will have their first book out soon. They come from many different cultural backgrounds, but all are passionate about connecting with readers through art and story. Please look for their books at bookstores and libraries!

Alyssa Bermudez

Photo by Mark Cowles

Photo by Mark Cowles

Alyssa Bermudez is a New Yorker who studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and now lives and works in Tasmania. She illustrated Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, which was published in 2017 by Pow! Kids Books.

Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist?

A:  I have always wanted to be someone who makes things. Whether it was designing shoes or learning to sew, I have always felt most like my true self when I’m making something. Growing up in New York, I had access to incredible artistic resources, and being exposed to that from a young age also made it feel totally natural. I don’t actually remember a time that I didn’t want to become an artist.

Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium.

A:  Watercolor and Photoshop are my current absolute favorites. Watercolor has a mind of its own and sometimes that spontaneity shows up on the page. I love the confidence of its presence and combining it with digital techniques where I can control it afterwards.

Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: Picture books are important because it allows children to visualize and understand their own stories as they grow up. They can see their lives reflected in this way. The world is an exciting and colorful place full of adventure, and picture books highlight this to kids and adults.

Lucia the Luchadora Cover

Elisa Chavarri

Elisa Chavarri is a freelance illustrator originally from Lima, Peru. She did much of her growing up in Northern Michigan where she now resides with her husband, baby girl, cat, and dog. Elisa graduated with honors from The Savannah College of Art and Design, where she majored in Classical Animation and minored in Comics.  Books she has illustrated include Rainbow Weaver/Tejadora del arco iris from Lee & Low Books, Maybe Mother Goose and Fairly Fairy Tales from Aladdin Books and various titles for American Girl.

Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist? 

A: For me, it was my love of the old classic Disney movies and cartoons, once I discovered that people actually created these characters and worlds by doing countless drawings and concept art, I was hooked. In addition I’ve liked drawing and coloring as long as I can remember.

Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium.

A: This is a tough one for me because I like different mediums for different reasons. My top favorites are pencil/paper, acrylics, watercolors, and digital. The one I use the most is digital, and it’s the one I learned last, but for completing work on time and revisions, it is the most versatile and efficient medium. To play around with on my own time and for personal projects I really enjoy acrylics and watercolors for their ease of use. I’ve been using these and oil paints since I was a kid thanks to my mom encouraging my artistic leanings and putting me in various classes. Digital painting I began learning in college, but mostly am self-taught.

Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: They introduce children to stories/reading and the arts which are among the most life enriching things in the world!

RAINBOW_WEAVER_fnl_JKT.jpg  maybe-mother-goose-9781481440363_hr.jpg  5246204269_e722bedb32_b.jpg

 

Zara Gonzalez Hoang

Zara Gonzalez HoangZara Gonzalez Hoang is an illustrator originally from Minneapolis, now living near Washington, D.C. She studied art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will illustrate the upcoming picture book Thread of Love by Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal for the Simon and Schuster imprint Beach Lane.

Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist?

A: I was lucky enough to be born into a family of teachers, so paper and art supplies were always around. I think at the heart of it all was the feeling of connection I got as a child drawing with my dad. I remember him lying on the floor with me, a sketchbook between us, drawing horses (my favorite) and boats (his favorite). My dad had a creative soul that wasn’t often expressed, so to be able to share a piece of it was always something special.

Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium.

A: I work primarily digitally. I’ve always been drawn to computers (I was actually a computer science major in college for a little while), so I think the idea of merging art and technology appeals to me on different levels. I like working digitally because it’s so easy to change things if you’re not satisfied. I have a tendency to change my mind a lot so being able to change colors with ease or move elements around is really appealing. I draw so much digitally that when I’m drawing traditionally and make a mistake my mind tells me I need to hit the undo button (even though that is obviously not possible!)

Also, being a mom of young son, it’s a lot easier to turn on my tablet and get some “painting” done without having to worry about my paint drying on my brushes or making a giant mess that I don’t have time to clean up when my guy needs me. There are so many great brushes being created for Photoshop these days (Kyle’s Brushes are my favorite) that emulate different traditional media that it’s become a lot harder to tell the difference if you know what you are doing.

Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: They help children make sense of the world around them. There is a quote that I read recently that really resonates with me and gets to the heart of why I think picture books are important so I will just put that here because I don’t think I can say it any better than Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirror in books.”

I got into picture books because as a mixed-race Latina Jew married to a Vietnamese refugee with a Vietnamese/Puerto Rican/Jewish Buddhist child I want to help create mirrors for children who don’t have them. There are so many stories that are not represented, I feel like part of my purpose is to help bring them to life.

Book Review: Who’s Ju? (Seventh Grade Sleuths #1) by Dania Ramos

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Image result for who's ju? book coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.

But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.

Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.

MY TWO CENTS: This book drew me in right away with the title of the first chapter (“DNA Malfunction”) and the first mini-paragraph – “It’s not hard evidence. Just a family photo stuck on our silver fridge with a teapot magnet. Case closed.” It may not be clear to some, but I knew I was in for a good read – and I was right.

As the book begins, Dania Ramos uses a great choice of words to describe the middle school setting and to profile the main character, Justina (pronounced Hoosteenah) Feliciano. She’s just a normal 7th grade girl who’s trying to survive the tumultuous times in middle school while trying to figure out why she doesn’t look like the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With her frizzy blond hair and light eyes, she stands out.

Justina – or Ju (pronounced Hu) for short – has her core group of friends, the Seventh-Grade Sleuths, and she’s not the most popular girl in school, so she’s surprised when former friend Sara asks her for help to solve a very important case. I loved how Ramos wrote the case of the vandalized scenery in a way similar to a decades-old cold case – because to Justina, Ig, and Gunther, it is that big of a deal.

The other conflict in the book involves a genetics assignment in Justina’s health class. Her mother is immediately against the assignment, and she wants to know why – so she finds out. Ramos’ writing compared Justina to Sherlock Holmes and other detectives, which I got a kick out of. I also loved how Justina was so determined to find answers, even when her parents weren’t okay with it.

Another aspect of the book that hit home for me was when Ju decided to change her identity – new clothes, new (blond) hairdo, and a new name. I tried a similar method in middle school myself, which I’m ashamed of now. But on the other hand, when you feel out of place in a way Justina does in the book, it’s an understandable move.

After a runaway scare (and reconciling with best friend Ig), Justina eventually finds out the truth – she doesn’t look like the rest of her family because she’s adopted. She’s heartbroken but is understanding, and even agrees to meet her birth father. Ramos wrote this part of the story in a way that was endearing and welcoming, which I enjoyed.

Overall, Who’s Ju? is a lovely read. I would say the question in the title is certainly answered, but I hope to see more from Ramos about Ju and her friends and family in the future.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be a great way for middle-grade students, especially girls, to learn about something that isn’t taught in many classes before high school – social sciences. It’s important for kids to learn that you are not defined by your skin color and that, like Justina, you can identify a certain way no matter how you look. The book would also help kids learn about adoption and solving crimes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Dania is an author, playwright, and teaching artist. Her middle grade novel Who’s Ju? won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Best YA eBook and was a finalist for the ILBA Mariposa Award for Best First Book.

Dania’s stage writing credits include Mi Casa Tu Casa (Luna Stage, Dreamcatcher Rep, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival) and Hielo (developed through the Women Playwrights Project at Writers Theatre of New Jersey). Her plays have also been featured in the New Jersey Women Playwrights Series (co-presented by Writers Theatre of New Jersey and Speranza Theatre Company), Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Reading Series, Writers Theatre of New Jersey’s FORUM and Soundings Reading Series, Luna Stage’s Short Play Festival, and the Maslow Salon Reading Series at Wilkes University. She’s been a finalist in the MetLife Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition and the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.

Dania is a creative writing instructor and a theatre teaching artist. She has led arts residencies and workshops for organizations including New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Writers Theatre of New Jersey, Writopia Lab, and the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts.

Dania is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, and Actors Equity Association. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from Montclair State University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

Book Review: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Reviewed by Sujei Lugo and Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork that echoes Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean—and definitely not inside the lines—to be beautiful.

OUR TWO CENTS:

Radiant Child is a heartfelt and vibrant picture book about the childhood and life of Puerto Rican-Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Written for young children, it celebrates Basquiat’s art and traces the early steps of his artistic formation, as he makes his way toward the pinnacle of fame. From boyhood, he begins developing his own “messy” style of art-making, one that evokes powerful personal emotions, while addressing the sound and fury of social and cultural politics. Javaka Steptoe received the 2017 Caldecott Medal for his work as the book’s illustrator, a fitting recognition of the dynamic and engaging art seen in these pages.

The story in Radiant Child shifts through various New York City settings, including interiors of the Basquiat family home in Brooklyn, the exhibit spaces of an art museum, the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the artist’s studio. As a boy, Basquiat sees art everywhere he looks, not just in the museums he visits with his mother or in the poetry books she reads to him, but also in everyday objects that he encounters around the city. Early on, while other children in the neighborhood skip rope, young Basquiat “dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” You can tell how seriously he has devoted himself to this dream by the pencils, papers, and drawings scattered all over his bedroom.

Throughout childhood, the primary influencer on Basquiat’s art is his mother, Matilde, a Puerto Rican woman who “designs and sews,” and sometimes even joins her child in the act of drawing. Her artistic influence on him is not always intentional. After a car accident leaves Jean-Michel injured, Malide introduces him to Gray’s Anatomy. Her hope is to teach the young boy how the human body is knit together. Little does she anticipate that the diagrams from this book will seep into his catalog of artistic imagery and emerge as motifs in his mature work. In addition to taking Jean-Michel to museums, Matilde also conveys the message that art can be found in ordinary things, including the “messy patchwork of the city.” This sets up an interesting parallel, in which Basquiat, an Afro-Latino child of humble beginnings with no formal education in the arts, is shaped by the traditional, elitist, and largely white institutions of the New York art world, yet simultaneously absorbs the powerful visual elements inherent in his own cultural milieu. In the book’s museum scene, it is fascinating to note that his favorite work of art is Picasso’s “Guernica,” an immense painting that depicts the horrors of the Nazi bombing of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it is before this very painting that the boy begins to develop ideas about artistic self-expression as a major force in the world.

Tragically, when Basquiat’s mother suffers debilitating mental illness and is hospitalized, this shatters the circle of love that fed the young boy’s artistic growth. He continues living with his father, Gerard, but “things are not the same,” and as a teenager, Jean-Michel runs off to live on his own in the “concrete jungle where only the tough survive.” There, he begins his career as a graffiti artist. Signing his work with SAMO©, Basquiat creates street art that captivates the city and propels him from the streets to the galleries. Fame follows, just as the young boy dreamed, and this is where the story portion of Radiant Child ends. The book’s back matter, however, includes a substantial section that acknowledges Basquiat’s drug addiction and untimely death at 27.

How does a children’s illustrator depict the life and oeuvre of such a celebrated artist? As explained in an author’s note, Javaka Steptoe answers this challenge not by reproducing, but by reinterpreting Basquiat’s work. The result is original and memorable, yet strongly evocative of Basquiat’s signature style. Steptoe achieves this by employing the graffiti and collage methods that his subject used, in combination with traditional painting techniques, and by incorporating symbols and motifs associated with Basquiat, such as stylized human skulls and femurs.

Each page spread in Radiant Child is a small construction consisting of a scene painted over a textured background. For his background materials, Steptoe relies heavily on found objects, primarily throwaways. Due to their worn condition, these objects call to mind the crumbling cityscape of 1980s Lower East Side—one of Basquiat’s stomping grounds. The repurposed materials include wooden slats salvaged from dumpsters, and Steptoe glorifies the raw condition of these slats by assembling them into rough jigsaw-puzzle surfaces, in which each nail hole and splintered edge contributes to the painted illustration’s lively texture. Steptoe enhances the textured effect by collaging photographs over select areas, presenting pockets of visual intrigue for readers to explore.

Although this is a picture book, the rich inspiration it offers should not be denied to older kids. Native children and children of color stand to benefit the most from such exposure. In witnessing Basquiat’s artistic journey, we also arrive at a greater appreciation of the soothing power of art. We see that artistic creativity can act as a therapeutic exercise in the face of pain, fear, separation, and insecurity. Radiant Child also delivers the unmistakable and essential message that messiness and art-making go hand in hand, and that although the results may be “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, [it’s] somehow still beautiful.” Indeed, this message is joyously inscribed on every page, in every scribble, and through every splintered and splattered collage.

THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR

As the son of award-winning illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe grew up surrounded by art and children’s books, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. In his own career, the younger Steptoe has captured many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as recognition from the NAACP Image Awards, and the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Read more about him at his official website.

 

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING

In its final pages, Radiant Child appends information on portions of Basquiat’s life not covered in the story, including a section detailing motifs and symbols that appear in his work.

The publisher Little Brown provides an informative page on Radiant Child. There, you can view a book chat with Javaka Steptoe and watch an embedded video of a live art demo he shared on New York Times’s Facebook page.

Here is an additional interview with Steptoe, conducted by Travis Jonker, of School Library Journal, for the series “The Yarn,” which looks closely at how kids’ books are made.

For anyone interested in further exploration of Basquiats’s world, abundant online and print resources exist, although they are primarily aimed at adult readers. Here is a sampling.

Basquiat’s friend and one-time roommate Alexis Adler talks on video about photos she took of him. See it here.

Read an illuminating conversation with Basquiat, published in Interview Magazine in 1983.

The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat maintains a website devoted to his life and work. Visit it here.