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.