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

Bibliography: Steptoe, Javaka. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York, New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0316213882.

Plot Summary: The author and illustrator of this book takes his cue from Basquiat himself and illustrates with the influence of Basquiat’s collages, symbols and motifs, and lush, thick slabs of paint. Steptoe writes in his notes that he “painted on richly textured pieces of found wood harvested from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, the Dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones, and the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side…While [readers] will not find reproductions of actual Basquiat artwork…they will find…original pieces that were inspired by him…”

This is fitting considering the entirety of the book is on the formative influences of Jean-Michel Basquiat as he ascends to artistic fame. The book details his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn “between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice…” Basquiat is inspired to do art, even as a young child and he draws and draws to his heart’s content, particularly cityscapes. His mother, Mathilde, supports his endeavors and she teaches him “Art is the street games of little children, in our style and the words that we speak. It is how the messy patchwork of the city creates new meaning for ordinary things.” Even as his mother suffers mental health problems, he still pays his love and dedication to her, visiting and showing Mathilde his artwork. As a teenager, Basquiat moves to the Lower East Side. There he flourishes, constantly painting, making collages, and poetry. He turns to graffiti art under the pen name, Samo©. From there, Basquiat is able to showcase his work in art galleries and become a prominent figure. Despite his fame, Basquiat never stops working hard at his passions and his mother will always be his queen, “above all the critics, fans, and artists he admires…”

Critical Analysis: The text is bubbling with passion for Basquiat’s life and works. It is in normal text for the most part, but each splash page features one to two words or phrases that fully capitalized and in a type that looks handwritten and bigger that the rest of the words. “BEAUTIFUL” and “ARTIST” are the words that turn up the most in the book, but there also words that are emphasized only once that are still integral to the character of Basquiat: “PAINT,” “MATHILDE,” “HEALING,” “BREAKS,” and, of course, “RADIANT, WILD, A GENIUS CHILD…” The book gives a clear sequence of Basquiat growing up and showing what influences his art without outright stating it. The book also serves to avoid stereotypes, while showing his mother doing housework, Mathilde also encourages his artistry. “From her he learns that art is not only in the poetry books she reads to him or in the theatres and musuems they visit.” Mathilde teaches him to take the city as his inspiration. Steptoe also avoids stereotypes of mentally ill people being bad parents by showing that despite her illness, Mathilde is a loving force behind Basquiat. This can be a great opening for conversations between adults and children on mental illness and how to care for loved ones that have it.

As for the accuracy of this book, Steptoe goes the extra mile of depicting the illustrations all from the influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Basquiat, he goes for thick, uneven lines, slaps of thick paint, like Basquiat, “His drawings are not neat or clean…They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.” While Steptoe does not explicitly list out the references he used to create this book, he does write out a one-page biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat at the end of the story. In the notes, he lists out the symbolism Basquiat enjoyed creating into his work and he challenges the reader to see if they can find those symbols and motifs in the book. He also states that he has known Basquiat’s work and impact through high school and college. Steptoe spent time in Greenwich Village where he saw his artwork. He also mentions attending one of Basquiat’s art shows and reading up about him in the 1985 New York Times article, “New Art, New Money,” written by Cathleen McGuigan.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: 2017 Caldecott Medal; 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published October 25, 2016, posted online July 20, 2016:

“Steptoe’s canvas is wood salvaged from the Brooklyn Museum and locales that Basquiat frequented. Spaces between the patched fragments contribute to the impression of a disjointed childhood. Steptoe shows that Basquiat was smart and driven early on, influenced by his Haitian father’s jazz records and his Puerto Rican mother’s style, encouragement, breakdown, and institutionalization when he was only 7. Prior to that, she drew with him, took him to see Picasso’s Guernica, and gave him Grey’s Anatomy following a serious car accident…Several sentences per spread speak with understated lyricism and poignancy, an occasional internal rhyme underscoring a point: ‘Jean-Michel is confused and filled with a terrible blues / when Matilde can no longer live at home.’ Acknowledging his multifaceted sense of connection, Steptoe interprets Basquiat’s style instead of inserting particular works. Vibrant colors and personal symbols channel the ‘sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL’ paintings, incorporating meticulously attributed collage elements and capturing the artist’s energy and mystery.

Connections: A connection can be made by teaching children how to create collages of their own and interject symbols and motifs of their own life. Another connection can be of them creating a story of how their parents or other adults in their life grew up as children, teaching them the value of biographies.

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