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

Javaka Steptoe. Little, Brown, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-316-21388-2
In this visually arresting and vibrantly narrated biography, Steptoe (In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall) charts the childhood of incandescent, ill-fated artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988). Although the book includes no work by Basquiat himself, Steptoe emulates 1980s street art by layering paint, paper scraps, paint tubes, and photos on found-wood panels. The artist, Steptoe writes, learned to see art in the “messy patchwork of the city,” the “street games of little children,” and the “terrible blues” of growing up. Basquiat’s early influences include his Puerto Rican mother, Matilde, who encourages him with museum visits and with the textbook Gray’s Anatomy. Poetry and his Haitian father’s jazz records fuel his imagination, too: “His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines.” Basquiat’s radiance was suffused with trauma, and Steptoe alludes to Matilde’s mental illness and Basquiat’s teenage strife (“His mother’s mind is not well, and the family breaks”). Passing references to Warhol, Haring, graffiti, and Basquiat’s heroin overdose appear in the afterword: “Basquiat lived an exhilarating life, but... he struggled with a drug addiction until his death.” Overall, Steptoe focuses on Basquiat’s meteoric rise, and readers see the artist smiling as he walks on the gritty Lower East Side. Collaged photographs picture a crowded gallery, and Steptoe concludes in the present tense: “He is now a famous artist!” Steptoe downplays tragic elements, instead celebrating Basquiat’s irreverence and brilliance. Ages 4–8. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/08/2016
Release date: 10/25/2016
Hardcover - 274 pages - 978-1-4422-4708-6
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