Monday, December 12, 2016

Power of Art to Inspire & Heal: Radiant Child, by Javaka Steptoe (ages 6-10)

I firmly believe that picture books give children their first experience seeing and thinking about art. Radiant Child, by Javaka Steptoe, is an amazing new picture book about the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I especially love the way that Steptoe shows children how art has the power to inspire and heal. At the same time, he shows a revolutionary artist celebrating his neighborhood, infusing it with vibrant, colorful art.
Radiant Child:
The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
by Javaka Steptoe
Little, Brown, 2016
Your local library
ages 6-10
*best new book*
Start with a careful look at the cover and see what details you notice. A flag from Puerto Rico on one side. Do you see the flag from Haiti on the other? We see several stars. The initials JMB. Do you notice the word "radiant", with the lines shining out from the R?  Look closely and see the pieces of the painting put together, like shingles on the side of a building.

Javaka Steptoe introduces children to Jean-Michel Basquiat, a modern American artist who was "known for his charisma, energy, and bold, captivating art." Steptoe focuses on Basquiat's childhood and entry into the art world, helping young readers see in themselves the potential for becoming professional artists. As a young child, Jean-Michel drew with passion and focus, drawing "from morning until night with a serious face amid a storm of papers".
“In his house you can tell a serious ARTIST dwells. As he sits at a table with pencils scattered everywhere, Jean-Michel draws from morning until night with a serious face amid a storm of papers. He refuses to sleep until he has created a masterpiece.”
Steptoe's style, using found objects and painting with vivid, striking colors, captures the expressive feeling of Basquiat's work and incorporates many of symbols and motifs that Basquiat used in his own work. My students particularly responded to the idea that Basquiat drew outside the lines. As Steptoe writes,
"His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL."
Jean-Michel's mother encouraged him to create art from a young age, lying on the floor to draw alongside him. Jean-Michel was badly hurt in a car accident as a young boy, and art helped him heal. But when his mother suffered from mental illness and had to leave the family home, Jean-Michel was heart-broken. One of my students commented that Steptoe pieced together his paintings from scraps of wood the same way that Basquiat tried to piece together his life using art. Oh-wow-oh-wow, what a powerful idea.
My students noticed that the neighborhoods Steptoe painted resembled their own neighborhoods, with a "messy patchwork" of houses and apartments, filled with cars and people and shops. They found Steptoe's vibrant illustrations interesting and engaging, but they also responded to his message. Steptoe finishes this picture book with an inspiring author's note. He writes,
"Basquiat's success seemed to me to begin an era of inclusion and diversity in fine arts where there had been little to none. This meant as a young African American artist coming up that my chances of having my voice heard and achieving mainstream success were majorly expanded...I wanted to help young people connect with his art the way that I had."
This is a fascinating picture book, one that I've found myself going back to again and again. I'm excited to share it with our art teacher at school, hear what conversations she has with her students, and see the artwork they create after looking more closely at Basquiat's paintings. A striking and thoughtful look at a unique artist.

Illustrations © Javaka Steptoe 2016. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Little Brown, and we have purchased multiple copies for our library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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