“Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” Written and Illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (2016) – hardcover
There is so much to unpack in this gem of a book! Radiant Child is a picture book biography that chronicles the early childhood of the iconic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. As an African-American artist who was also trying to find his voice in the chaotic streets of New York City, author Steptoe cites his introduction to Basquiat’s work as having inspired his own career in the arts. Steptoe pays homage to Basquiat in the most stunning way I’ve ever seen in a children’s picture book. His illustrations are more individual pieces of original art than they are traditional illustrations, having painted on reclaimed wood that had been discarded throughout New York City, adding collage elements to the paintings, just as Basquiat often did. Steptoe then photographed his artwork and turned them into the illustrative page spreads you see in Radiant Child, creating the perfect compliment to his poetic text on the life of Basquiat.
For those who are wondering, the story does not address the tragic death of Basquiat (he died of a drug overdose at the age of 27). It ends on a high note, when Basquiat starts exhibiting his work publicly to much admiration and fanfare. Steptoe does mention Basquiat’s “struggle with drug addiction” only in the supplemental material at the back of the book.
Take-away message: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Basquiat’s art was raw, messy, abstract, weird, and sometimes ugly. But it conveyed a message. His art was an outward expression of his inner demons and pain and suffering, in addition to being an outlet to speak about the complex social issues that troubled him. Some people hated his work but, for many others, it spoke to them, and they paid thousands and eventually millions of dollars for his pieces. Author Steptoe created this book in hopes that it would inspire other young artists to keep on creating.
Also worth noting, as the author describes in his note at the back of the book, he wanted “young readers and the adults in their lives to be able to use Basquiat’s story as a catalyst for conversation and healing.” Basquiat’s mother suffered from mental health issues, which led to her institutionalization when Basquiat was only seven years old. Steptoe delicately addresses this event in the story, leaving room for further conversation between parents/educators and their young readers.
TAGS: notable POC, mixed race, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Black, Latinx, male lead, hardcover