Javaka Steptoe won the 1998 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his first book, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall, and has illustrated eight others, including Charlotte Zolotow’s Do You Know What I’ll Do? and Nikki Grimes’s A Pocketful of Poems. Steptoe is carrying on a family tradition; his father, illustrator John Steptoe, published 16 books and won two Caldecott Honors before his death in 1989. Bookshelf spoke with Javaka about Amiri and Odette: A Love Story (Scholastic), a collaboration with Walter Dean Myers on a contemporary adaptation of Swan Lake. Steptoe evokes the story’s urban setting with paintings done directly on asphalt.
Walter Dean Myers says in his introduction that the idea of turning Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into a struggle between two young men in a contemporary housing project took a long time to grow in his mind. Did it take you a long time to figure out how you were going to do the artwork?
It took me a very long time. It doesn’t usually take that long! I usually only take about a year on a project. I probably got the contract in ’98 or ’99. When I first got the original story of SwanLake—that was the working title for a long time—it was much longer and there was still a lot of editing down to do. I was thinking, Walter Myers was thinking, [Scholastic editor] Liz Szabla was thinking....
I was thinking about state of urban culture, the things the audience was interested in—what they wanted to see. There was this catchphrase at the time: Represent the street! I thought about that a lot. I thought about my grandmother and how she raised my mother in the Harlem River projects. I looked at a lot of graffiti magazines. I was thinking about the cinematic quality of the story, how it was so visual. I was thinking, Should I paint this on a wall? Could I go to some housing project and paint this on a wall?
Where did the idea of working on cinder blocks came from? Had you ever tried it before?
No, that was totally for this project. It’s not cinder blocks, it’s asphalt.
Were there technical problems you had to solve to do it?
It was definitely a process. You know how there are piles of asphalt in the street where they’re digging them up? That really caught me and I thought that would be cool.
I knew I wanted it on asphalt, but I didn’t know what the artwork was going to be like. I had to figure it out—what the actual visual images were going to look like, and how I was going to apply them to the asphalt. I got the asphalt from Home Depot and I mixed it with acrylic medium. It was kind of like baking cookies [he laughs] but it took a lot longer.
I had taken a lot of photographs of places. I used a fax machine to transfer them to tissue paper; then I applied the tracing paper directly to the asphalt. Then I painted on top of that with acrylic paint. It took me a long time to figure it out. It’s fun—it’s like being a scientist.
The way the figures are outlined in blue is particularly striking. It makes them look moonlit.
My father taught me that. When he was working on Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, before he started doing the details, he would lightly paint the outlines of the figures in blue. I asked him about it. He told me about light, and how things in the daytime aren’t necessarily white, and things at night aren’t necessarily black. Everything is a color. When I decided to use blue I remembered that.
Aside from the artwork, did you have any input into the look of the finished book?
No… not really. It’s more like a relay race. Walter Dean Myers wrote the book and then he handed the baton to me, and then I did the artwork and I handed the baton to the designer [Phil Falco]. Walter Myers had a certain image of the book when he handed it to me, and then I had a certain image in my mind when I handed it to the designer. And when I got the book back I thought, What? I really like how it looks, but it’s always a surprise to see it at first because it’s so different from the image that’s in your own mind.
What did you do to find out more about the story of Swan Lake itself?
I read a lot of versions of the story. And I saw Swan Lake Barbie [much laughter]. I would go to schools and tell them about the project and the kids would all say Swan Lake Barbie! SwanLake Barbie! so I figured I’d better check it out.
The artwork really evokes the idea of dancing. It’s as though you were working towards choreographing a real dance project. Is there any word on bringing Amiri and Odette to the stage?
I showed it to a friend of mine who teaches African dance and he wanted to do something with it right off the bat. He said, “I gotta do something with the kids!” The original story of SwanLake was meant to be performed. I wouldn’t want to take that away from the story.
Did your father teach you, or did you just watch what he did and follow his example?
Both of my parents are artists so I learned a lot from both of them. My father was more technical and my mother’s style was more loose. She did a lot of collage so I probably got my love of textures and textiles from her. But from my father I learned from watching his process, from watching how he formed faces and hands. I remember asking him how to make a face, and he sat down and showed me how to draw the eye and how to draw the nose and he explained the relationship between them. He would have me and my sister trace album covers and work on shading.
I also learned from my mother. I asked her the same questions. And I liked comic books, so I had that superhero thing going on, too. You just can’t help learning, being in that atmosphere. You know—if they play a song on the radio enough somehow you just know the words.
Did he ever try to talk you out of—or into—becoming an artist?
Well, I have a lot of different interests. I went to a lot of specialized schools when I was younger—I was really interested in science. People were always saying, Are you going to be an artist, because your father’s an artist? I guess I was kind of rebelling.
I went to Isaac Newton [Junior High School], and then Brooklyn Tech [Brooklyn Technical High School]. But I was kind of struggling. I wasn’t really into formulas. I could do it now, but as a youth I was just really impatient.
And I was still drawing every day. So he just sat me down one day and he said, “I know you’re kind of noncommittal about saying you’re an artist, but—why don’t you just be what you are?” He said, “You should do what you love. I see you doing artwork so you must love it.” And I’m glad I did. But there’s a lot of scientist in me.
You’re an experimenter.
Yeah, definitely, that’s a part of me, too. Maybe I could have been one of those guys at a site with a little brush, brushing things off, trying to figure out how people in the past lived.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a Jimi Hendrix book for Clarion. After that is a Tupac [Shakur] graphic novel. For that one I’m writing it as well as doing the art. That’s a cool project.
Any projects you fantasize about doing?
I want to do a science-fiction book. There’s this science-fiction writer I’m interested in, a woman named Nola Hopkinson. She’s Caribbean but she lives in Canada. I really like her work and I’m interested in doing something with her. But I don’t have any fantasies about wanting to do something else. I’m doing what I want to do right now.
Amiri and Odette: A Love Story by Walter Dean Myers, illus. by Javaka Steptoe. Scholastic, $17.99, Jan. 2009 ISBN 978-0-590-68041-7