Steptoe, Javaka. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. illus. by Javaka Steptoe. 40p. bibliog. Little, Brown. Oct. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316213882.
Gr 1-5 –One extraordinary artist illuminates another in this textured, heartfelt picture book biography of the 1980s cultural phenom. Employing signature features of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work—vibrant colors, found objects, repeated motifs—Steptoe allows his own emotionally rich style to shine through the artistic and biographical references dotting the illustrations. Pieces of discarded wood from Basquiat’s stomping grounds fit together to form the painted surfaces for Steptoe’s scenes of the Afro Puerto Rican artist, each unfolding within a colored frame. Occasional collage elements of newsprint, photographs, and art materials add dimension and immediacy, highlighting both artists’ immersion in their work and surroundings. Adhering to a straightforward chronology, Steptoe addresses events in Basquiat’s life primarily as they affected his artistic growth from young boyhood in Brooklyn through the triumphant years as a critical and popular success in Manhattan. With minimal detail, the author sensitively touches upon his subject’s childhood car crash and his mother’s mental illness, though the story avoids his drug use and stops before his early death. Crucial back matter provides context for readers in every respect. Additional biographical information fleshes out the lyrical text of the main narrative, and an introduction to symbolism in Basquiat’s work helps readers appreciate the layers at play in Steptoe’s illustrations. An author’s note articulates feelings that radiate from every page of the book: Steptoe’s admiration for and attachment to Basquiat and his personal investment in depicting a complicated, loving relationship between a child and a mentally ill parent. VERDICT Pairing simple text with expressive, encompassing illustrations, this excellent title offers a new generation a fittingly powerful introduction to an artistic luminary.
This review is published in School Library Journal’s August 2016 issue.