Radiant Child – Perfect Picture Book Friday

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Today is multicultural children’s book day and what better way to celebrate than with this visually stunning picture book biography about modern art phenomenon Jean-Michel Basquiat, which has just won the Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrator, 2017.

Title: Radiant Child, The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Author & illustrator: Javaka Steptoe

Publisher: Little Brown

Date: 2016

40 pages

Ages: 5-8

Themes: artist biography, collage, New York City

Library Awards:
Caldecott Medal (2017), Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrator (2017)


Somewhere in Brooklyn between hearts that                                                             thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch

and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice,
a little boy dreams of becoming a famous ARTIST.


Jean-Michael Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocked to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art work 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 and art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean–and definitely not inside the lines–to be beautiful. (Goodreads)

Why I like this book:

Oh, what a glorious, stunning, moving timely biography of this artist. This is a gift to children to be able to see someone as talented as Basquiat holding onto his dream through all the chaos and turmoil and love. Basquiat’s art is messy, Basquiat’s life was messy, and yet he used his gifts to produce beauty and inspiration. I hope this will inspire young readers to create, whatever that looks like.

The narration is lyrical, gritty, and urgent. Steptoe chose to include the influences on Basquiat’s young life, especially his mother. He notes in the story and in the author’s note the artist’s relationship with his mother, who suffered from mental illness. They were close and her struggles and influence on her son are depicted with realism and yet without being too scary for a young reader. This is achieved by keeping the focus on art, and showing how she participated in his early passion. She talked to him about art, took him to museums, and encouraged him.

This is a love story not just to the artist but also to New York City. Steptoe does a great job of honoring Basquiat’s own art by showing the style and sense without replicating it. He “painted on richly textured pieces of found wood harvested from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, the Dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones, and the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side.” He achieves a textured almost 3D effect, using newspaper clippings, real photographs, reclaimed wood, and large splashes of paint.

It is a visually rich and poignant biography.


Three full pages at the end of this picture book are given over to: more about Basquiat (including his early demise at age 27 and his mother’s mental illness), the motifs and symbolism in Basquiat’s work, and a very personal author’s note.

Steptoe says in his note that this story may be of use to kids in similar circumstances and they can, “use Basquiat’s story as a catalyst for conversation and healing.”

The multicultural children’s book day website has:
A Resource for Teachers To Encourage Kindness: FREE Classroom Kindness Kit
and Reading Resources for Parents & Educators: Diversity Book Lists and Activities

Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

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14 Responses to Radiant Child – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Wendy Greenley says:

    I put this on my list to get after the awards. Both amazing and sad to think the subject only lived to age 27.

  2. Patricia Nozell says:

    Great choice for MCBD! And a wonderful review. This book was on my to buy list. Now it’s on my must buy list!

  3. I’m intrigued by art created on strange surfaces with newspaper clippings, photographs, reclaimed wood, and paint. I’m also curious to learn more about this remarkable artist. Thank you for sharing this book. I have a feeling I’m going to want to buy a copy.

  4. I just ordered this book! I love Steptoe’s books. I so enjoyed your review as it gave me more insight into the story. Yes, great choice for MCBD day.

  5. I’m really glad someone finally did a good book on this artist. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. I’ve seen this around in other posts and I need to read it. Reserved it from my library. Thanks for the great examination of it. 🙂

  7. Keila Dawson says:

    Intriguing cover. Can’t wait to read it. Love picture book biographies. Thanks for the review Joanna.

  8. Thanks for telling me more about this book. I can’t wait to have it in my hands. I LOVE the cover and the fact that it won the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King tells me I can look forward to the feast inside!

  9. Erik - TKRB says:

    This sounds like a really well-written book.

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