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Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Javaka Steptoe

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 07, 2017
Category: Children

“Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous ARTIST.”

Those are the words that begin “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat,” a 40-page art-and-text book for kids by Javaka Steptoe.

But… grades 1 to 5? Ages 6-10? Really? I mean, yes, great, little kids will love the art and one of them, a dreamer, will think he’ll grow up to be a great artist, but this book is also terrific for tweens who may not care about art but who like short texts and great visuals. The Small Person’s coming up on her 15th birthday — she’s getting this book. And you, the adult reading this: If your ideal of a visual binge is multiple episodes of something on the flat screen and you’d like some rich, vibrant eye candy wrapped around a poem, yeah, do it. (Style advice: Then put it on the coffee table, like it’s an award-winning art book.)

I’m not the only one who’s nuts about “Radiant Child.” It won the 2017 Randolph Caldecott Medal. It was a “best book” of the year for the Washington Post, NPR, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and many more. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition — think twice: don’t you really, really want the hardcover? — click here.]

What Javaka Steptoe has recorded in this book is the arc from dream to accomplishment. What ingredients are necessary for that to happen. Who needs to provide support. The price that gets paid. And who gets acknowledged at the pinnacle.

The Basquiat story, as you may know it, isn’t simple.

Steptoe edits the Basquiat story to make a different point. As a kid, he tells us, Basquiat “wakes from his dreams” to draw. His work is “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.” His mother agrees; she lies on the floor and draws with him. She takes him to theater and museums, showing him what’s possible. There’s a powerful spread of Basquiat in short pants, holding his mother’s hand, as he stares at his favorite picture, Picasso’s “Guernica.” And then, disaster: “His mother’s mind is not well.” She can no longer live at home. Heartbroken, Jean-Michel tries to draw the blues, but can’t. He leaves Brooklyn, and on the streets of New York sees an energy equal to his own. He draws on walls and streets. His graffiti gets noticed. He becomes a famous painter. People describe him as “radiant, wild, a genius child, but in his heart he is king.” He draws crowns for himself and people he admires. He still visits his mother. They talk about art. And in his paintings, he gives his mother “the place of honor. She’s “a queen on a throne.”

These few words are matched by Steptoe’s art. He doesn’t paint Basquiat’s pictures, he channels his spirit, using discarded wood and then painting on it. Steptoe creates grids, then breaks the images up; the pages aren’t neat. The result is a book of powerful physicality. And emotion — Steptoe’s father is a noted illustrator, but much of the story of Basquiat and his mother is also, sadly, the story of Steptoe and his mother. (In this podcast, he discusses their common histories.)

Mental illness, the loss of a parent, art that doesn’t live between the lines — isn’t this a lot for a 6-year-old? Depends. I have a box of our daughter’s art from that age; she had something going. And what kids understand? You’d be surprised. As for their dreams, don’t be stunned if “getting famous” is on the list. A prudent parent who reads this book to a child and then hands it over would do well to have to some art supplies handy.

Basquiet died of an overdose when he was 27. But not in these pages. This is the story of a boy with a dream. He worked hard. He made it. He deserves the crown he wears. Triumph. Who doesn’t wish for that?


Winner of the 2017 Randolph Caldecott Medal
Winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
Essence Magazine Top Ten Books of the Year
NAACP Image Awards Nomination for Outstanding Literary Work in Children
NPR Best Books of 2016
Washington Post Best Books of 2016
Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2016
School Library Journal Best Books of 2016
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2016
Horn Book Fanfare Best Books of 2016
New York Public Library 2016 Best Books for Kids
Chicago Public Library 2016 Best Books for Kids
ALA Notable Book for Children
A CCBC Best of Year Choice
A Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2017 Selection
Amazon Best Book of November 2016