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

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Radiant Child won both the 2017 Caldecott Medal and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Javaka Steptoe’s ingenious illustrations. He painted the images on reclaimed wood, photographing his masterpieces to accompany the text of the book. The book recounts the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young boy from Brooklyn who became a successful street artist, signing his work under the name SAMO©. Basquiat was born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican-American mother. His mother always supported him in his art, even bringing him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy with which to practice drawing human forms, after he was hospitalized from a car accident. Matilde, Jean-Michel’s mother, is separated from her son due to mental health issues, but he visits her throughout the book. Jean-Michel is relentless in his search to create meaningful art, eventually finding success in creating street art. The art was “still not neat or clean and definitely not inside the lines, but somehow still beautiful.” The book investigates the crown motif in Basquiat’s art, since he considered himself and others as kings. The book ends on a positive note, with Jean-Michel “making it” as an artist.

I think this is a valuable book for a teacher of any grade level or subject to have in the classroom library. With young children, a standard read-aloud will teach them about an often-forgotten American artist, while introducing them to the genre of biographies. Older children can learn more about the struggles of Basquiat’s life, including his drug addiction, through the author’s note at the end of the book, as well as through supplemental resources. Art teachers can further investigate the motifs in Basquiat’s art like crowns, eyes, and cars. Art lessons could also center around Steptoe’s unique illustration style. Secondary social studies teachers can explore the racially-related reasons why Basquiat is generally remembered as a drug addict who caught a lucky break, rather than a genius young artist who was swept up in the times. This book explores so many themes on a differentiated level. Older learners could study mental health issues in a deeper way, including how Basquiat’s difficult relationship with his mother may have influenced his art. In general, this book teaches a great view of what art is. Steptoe writes about art as being present everywhere, not just specific styles in museums. Street art is seen by many as disrespectful vandalism, but this book directly challenges that idea. The biography’s message that hard work is key to success is applicable to any student. Overall, this is one of my new favorite books, and I will be buying a copy for my classroom.

Maddie Geller

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