Javaka Steptoe

Daddy is a Monster ... SometimesJack­ie: 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 Daddy's Arms I Am TallIn 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:


Dear Dad­dy,
I’m sor­ry I did not do what you told me to do.
If I do bet­ter
Can I still be your lit­tle boy?

Dear Son,
You will be
My lit­tle boy
For all of your lit­tle boy days.
And when
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.

Sweet, Sweet BabyWhile 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.

Jones Family ExpressThe 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.

Radiant ChildIn 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

For a love­ly read-aloud of one of the poems in In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall – QdbX6JQQ

An inter­view with Java­ka Step­toe where, among oth­er things, he talks about writ­ing by col­lage

Lis­ten to Java­ka Step­toe read his Calde­cott win­ning Radi­ant Child

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