Winner of the Randolph Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Now, award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe's vivid text and bold artwork echoing Basquiat's own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn't always have to be neat or clean--and definitely not inside the lines--to be beautiful.
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.
I knew Jean-Michel during the early 80’sNYC nightclub days. We'd become friends, him showing me his sketchbook (seeing his raw imagery, and not really clued into how the art world might say things, I always encouraged him to keep at it. One day he’d be able to draw really well!), or with another friend Glenn O’Brien, the three of us in Glenn’s old Chevy parked on Central Park South at 4:00 in the morning on Thanksgiving’s eve, companionably watching them blow up the enormous balloons, a light snow dusting the windshield.
This beautiful book, its rich illustrations and imagery, capture the innocence and purity of this remarkable, eternally young man, his kindness and earnestness, and his unshakeable practice of art. Thanks so much to Javanka Steptoe and everyone involved. This book has brought tears, of sadness for his passing, and joy for his life.
- Ron Martinez
Def a recommended read