Jackie: Though our focus this month is on Javaka Steptoe, we want to begin this column with another book by his father, John Steptoe, Daddy is a Monster…Sometimes. This book is narrated by two children, Bweela and Javaka, who begin, “We are Bweela and Javaka and we have a daddy. He’s a nice daddy and all, but he got somethin’ wrong with him… .” “Daddy gets like the monster in the scary movies, with teeth comin’ out his mouth and hair all over his face.”…”Yeah, he’s sure a mean old crazy monster…sometimes.”
As the story goes on, we come to realize that daddy becomes a monster when the kids are acting, well…a bit monstrous. Javaka paints a doorknob, the kids accept a second ice cream cone from a white woman who quickly assumes their father hasn’t bought them one, or they use their entire arsenal of delaying tactics at bedtime.
“Sometimes Daddy’s a monster when we want to be a little messy” (kids’ room with clothes, toys on every surface)”…And sometimes he’s a monster when we just want to make a little noise” (kids using cymbals and playing trumpet while Dad is on the phone)……”And sometimes he turns into a monster when we have a little accident” (ball hits a vase and breaks it).
One thing I love about this book is the conversations the kids have with their Dad. They are clearly not afraid of this monster. Here’s an example. “‘Daddy, how come you turn into an ugly old monster sometimes?”’…“‘I’m probably a monster daddy when I got monster kids.’” And the book ends with a beautiful family portrait and “Daddy is a monster, but only sometimes’. /‘Yeah, only sometimes.”
Phyllis: I love, too, that the kids always qualify that Daddy is only a monster sometimes, and that they can talk to him about his monstrousness. I especially love when Bweela retorts to her father’s playful “Get out of my face, ‘fore I knock you out” with “Daddy, you ain’t gonna knock me out, ‘cause I’m gonna give you a knuckle sandwich.” No way is she afraid of her daddy. His response that he’s only monstrous when his kids are monstrous along with the image of the three of them together on the last page reinforces that this is a family that loves each other…all the time.
Jackie: I love the feeling this book gives me of visiting with this family, seeing the good times and the hard times. I love seeing young Javaka stretched out on the floor painting. It’s no surprise he grew up to be such a wonderful artist.
In the first book he illustrated, a collection of poems by twelve poets, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall (1997), Javaka Steptoe’s poem “Seeds” is a tribute to his father.
You drew pictures of life
with your words.
I listened and ate these words you said
to grow up strong.
Like the trees,
I grew, branches, leaves, flowers, and then the fruit.
I became the words I ate in you.
For better or worse
the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
This first book won the Coretta Scott King Award. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Steptoe has since illustrated books by many well-known writers — including Walter Dean Myers, Charlotte Zolotow, and Nikki Grimes.
Phyllis: One of the challenges of these covid times is finding the books we want to write about when libraries have limited hours and book stores may not be available. Jackie and I have read books to each other on zoom, found read-alouds on the Internet, and ordered books from used book sources (our favorite is Better World Books, an online seller of new and used books that also donates books and funds for worldwide literacy). When I wanted to reread In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall, I masked up and went to my downtown library, which had the book for in-library use only. I snapped pictures of the vivid and stunning pages and read the poems about fathers and children that ranged from funny (“Tickle tickle”) to poems so tender they made me cry. My favorite:
I’m sorry I did not do what you told me to do.
If I do better
Can I still be your little boy?
You will be
My little boy
For all of your little boy days.
You are no longer a little boy
I will still be your daddy
—David A. Anderson
The collage art for this poem is exquisitely simple — a father seen from the back, with a child’s arms around him and his head resting on his daddy’s shoulder. Five simple shapes that convey immense love.
While I was at the library I found another of Javaka Steptoe’s books, Sweet Sweet Baby, a small cloth book with simple text (“My sweet baby, My honey bun, I love you forever, My precious one…”) The book is shaped like a flower with six petals, each a different color and texture, with Steptoe’s illustrations of African American children and parents on each page and a Mylar mirror at the end. I wish I’d had this book for my babies to delight in. It’s clear that for Steptoe, family matters in everything he does.
The Jones Family Express, the first book Steptoe both wrote and also illustrated, is another celebration of family as relatives gather for the yearly block party. The narrator Steven’s favorite aunt, Aunt Carolyn, is coming back from one of her many summertime trips. Each trip she sends him a postcard and tells him when he’s old enough he can take a trip with her. He wants to give his aunt a special gift, but he has only a few hours until her train arrives. With his saved-up $10.75 cents he heads to Nostrand Avenue to find a gift. Perkins’s Drug Store has nothing special enough, and the elephant picture frame at Miss Ruby’s that he wants to buy is almost three times more than he has to spend. His Uncle Charles encounters him on the street and offers to find something within Steven’s budget at his house, which is full of junky objects that could be useful one day. Steven finds the perfect gift, a train with peeling paint and broken windows. By the time he fixes it up with picture of family covering the broken windows and The Jones Family Express painted on the side, it’s time to meet Aunt Carolyn. She declares his gift the best she’s ever received and gives him his postcard on which she has written that he’s old enough now to take a trip with her.
Jackie: Steptoe often uses found objects in his illustrations and has said of collage, “…collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, taking the scraps of life and transforming them into art forms.” His brilliant use of found objects also reminds all readers that there is art and beauty all around us.
In his Radiant Child, the Caldecott-winning biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat, he used “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 also includes cut out photographs of people on the street, a street musician playing a trumpet, dancers, and people I probably should recognize.
The last double spread is a glorious collage of people, perhaps “the critics, fans, and artists he [Basquiat} admires,” with a tender illustration of Basquiat and his mother at the side, and an insert in the larger spread that looks like Basquiat with his mother. The spread makes me want to spend a day understanding all that it includes.
But Javaka Steptoe is not all visual art. His words about Jean-Michel Basquiat tell of a life not easy but full of art. From his earliest days his mother took him to museums, read poetry to him, and got down on the floor and drew with him. At age seven Basquiat was involved in a car accident. His mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy so he could understand what was happening in his body. Also at that time it became apparent that his mother suffered from mental illness. Eventually she would not be able to live at home.
“As Jean-Michel grows older, he visits his mother when he can, /always bringing artwork to show, /telling her that one day it will be in a museum.” He first became noticed for his street art. His work so distinctive, soon it was hanging in art galleries. “Jean-Michel, an artist among artists, never doubts one line,/ creating from a sound track that is all his own.”
This book is a celebration — a celebration of persistence, of art, of love — and it is a gift to readers of all ages.
Phyllis: I love, too, the language in this book, which begins “Somewhere in Brooklyn between hearts that thump double Dutch and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” In an interview Steptoe talks about how writing, too, is a kind of collage. Just as his father wrote about his own children, Javaka uses pieces of his life in his stories. (Jean Michel in Radiant Child drawing pictures while lying on the floor echoes Steptoe’s own childhood.) And it’s clear in everything Steptoe writes that family does matter.
For November 2017 Picture Book Month Steptoe talks about why picture books are important and ends by saying, “I am very proud to be a “Picture Book Month Champion” and look forward to CONTRIBUTING TO A MORE BEAUTIFUL WORLD by creating and sharing my art and experiences through books.”
In challenging times, his words give us reason to read his books and to keep writing:
to help make a more beautiful world.
Some online resources:
Steptoe talks about why picture books matter for November Picture Book Month 2017 https://picturebookmonth.com/why-picture-books-are-important-by-javaka-steptoe/
For a lovely read-aloud of one of the poems in In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4 – QdbX6JQQ
An interview with Javaka Steptoe where, among other things, he talks about writing by collage https://bcbooksandauthors.com/bcba-spotlight-javaka-steptoe/
Listen to Javaka Steptoe read his Caldecott winning Radiant Child https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAxpNb6U8Fo