“This has been a very incredible day,” said Javaka Steptoe, referring to the hours following the announcement that he had won the 2017 Caldecott Medal for his picture book Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown), a biography of the 1980s New York street artist. When the phone rang in Steptoe’s Brooklyn home, “I was actually in the shower,” he said. “My girlfriend was yelling, ‘There’s a phone call for you! There’s a phone call for you!’ I came running to the phone dripping wet.” Of course, the news on the other end of the line was worth the awkward sprint.
“I was surprised, really surprised. I was looking at a lot of mock Caldecotts and stuff, and I saw books like They All Saw a Cat, and they were always listed before me,” he said. “I was just happy to be considered and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get an Honor and that would be great.’ ” But, of course, that’s not how the scenario ultimately played out. “It’s been surreal,” Steptoe continued. “I forgot the name of the woman who called. But when she said I won the Medal, I guess I was in shock. I couldn’t really say anything at first,” he said with a laugh.
In Radiant Child, Steptoe collaged bright paint, photos, and other pieces of found material onto pieces of wood he rescued and repurposed from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, local dumpsters, or the street. The result is original work that interprets and is inspired by Basquiat’s paintings and designs. “I think one of the things that drew me to Basquiat is that he was celebrating things that were happening in my life; my experiences,” Steptoe noted. One example he points to is the game skelzies. “He uses skelzie boards in his art and I played skelzies growing up,” Steptoe said. “It’s like marbles, but instead of marbles, you use weighted bottle caps and crash them into each other while trying to slide the caps into the boxes on the board.”
Steptoe made a strong connection to such familiar imagery in Basquiat’s work. “I associated it with how I was living and what I was doing,” he explained. “It’s great to see a validation of your life and the things that you do.” Additionally, Steptoe admired Basquiat’s courage, conviction, and vision. “I like that that he stood up for himself,” he said. “He talked about history. His curiosity about the world was very impressive. And the way he put everything together and the way he used images is very poetic.” Steptoe pointed out that Basquiat was a fan of William S. Burroughs, and believes some of his influence showed in Basquiat’s work, too. “Burroughs would do projects where he cut up books and put pages back together in different ways so that different parts of sentences would come together. It created different avenues of meaning, or even multiple meanings.”
Prior to the Caldecott Medal, Steptoe had received numerous accolades for his illustration, including the Coretta Scott King Award. But, according to Steptoe, this latest recognition has a different feel. “The most important thing it does is bring my voice to more people,” he said. “Whatever I’m interested in saying – and people don’t necessarily have to agree with me – if I have something to say, I have a voice that’s going to be heard. It’s kind of like Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. I appreciate that. I hope to be seen as someone who thinks deeply and cares about the world, and cares about what’s going on.”
Artistic talent, and recognition by the Caldecott committee are two things that run in Steptoe’s family. His late father, author-illustrator John Steptoe, received two Caldecott Honors, in 1985 for The Story of Jumping Mouse and again in 1988 for Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. What is it like to be part of such a legacy? “I know my father is proud of me,” Steptoe said. “He’s not the source of all my knowledge, but he is someone who inspired in me the desire to say something that’s meaningful. I also know that his accomplishments have helped me to get here. Not in a sense of nepotism, but he’s created a platform and with this platform it’s up to me whether I sink or swim. It doesn’t matter if I’m John Steptoe’s son if I’m not creating something that’s not touching or contacting people in any way.”
Steptoe said his father’s example helped shape his life journey in other ways as well. “What my father instilled in me was that it’s incumbent on you to do what you love because that’s where you shine, no matter what it is,” he said. “You have good days and bad days, but doing what you love makes the bad days better and the good days more special. People think the things they love have to be great and grand. But sometimes the things that are most meaningful are the small things.”
When asked how his father might have reacted to today’s happy news, Steptoe mused, “If he wasn’t here with me, he would call me up and say, ‘Let’s take a trip. Let me tell you what I was going through when I was in your same situation.’ ” The younger Steptoe also knows that his father’s words of encouragement would be a continuing part of the conversation. “I know he would tell me, ‘Jut remember to call me and tell me what you are experiencing. I’m here to support you.’ ”
Once the flurry of press interviews and congratulatory messages has slowed a bit, Steptoe says he may celebrate by “maybe having a piece of chocolate cake or something.” And after that, it’s literally back to the drawing board. “There is something coming next, but nothing I can talk about yet,” he said. “You can’t get big-headed about these things,” he noted. “When Radiant Child came out in October, even then I was thinking, ‘I have to start getting my next project out there.’ ” No matter what that project turns out to be, Steptoe can rest assured that lots of people will be eager to see it.