John Steptoe’s Beautiful Books

This month we want to cel­e­brate the work of John Step­toe, bril­liant artist and writer, who was born on Sep­tem­ber 14, 1950. His work is a year-round birth­day present to all of us.

StevieHis first book, Ste­vie, was pub­lished by Harp­er & Row in 1969. Step­toe, in an inter­view in 1987, recalled that when he left high school a teacher sug­gest­ed he show Ursu­la Nord­strom his port­fo­lio. He soon did and she asked for a book. He had been think­ing about the Ste­vie sto­ry for a cou­ple of years. Harp­er pub­lished it when he was 19 years old. Life Mag­a­zine re-print­ed it. The book was cel­e­brat­ed as a “new kind of book for black children.”

Now, we have the advan­tage of time and of a ground-break­ing essay by Rudine Sims Bish­op about the way lit­er­a­ture can serve as a mir­ror to reflect one’s own self, a win­dow into anoth­er cul­ture, or a slid­ing glass door to allow read­ers to step into anoth­er cul­ture in their imag­i­na­tions. So, while we agree that Steptoe’s book should be read by Black chil­dren who need to see them­selves mir­rored in the books they read, we also know they should be read by all chil­dren who can move through the slid­ing glass door to the lives of chil­dren who are not themselves.i

And all chil­dren will under­stand Robert, the nar­ra­tor of Ste­vie, who has to deal with the entrance of the younger child Ste­vie into his life. Ste­vie stays at Robert’s house Mon­day through Fri­day while his moth­er works. Robert is not hap­py about Ste­vie, “his old baby self,” liv­ing at his house. He plays with Robert’s toys, leaves foot­prints on Robert’s bed. When Robert goes out­side to play with friends, his moth­er insists he take Ste­vie along. Robert’s friends call him “Bob­by the Babysit­ter,” which makes Robert even more unhap­py with this arrange­ment. Robert thinks Ste­vie has ruined his life and he doesn’t hes­i­tate to tell him. “’I’m sor­ry Robert. You don’t like me Robert. I’m sor­ry,’ Ste­vie says.” Then one day Stevie’s par­ents came to tell Robert and his fam­i­ly the news that Ste­vie and his par­ents are mov­ing. Ste­vie will not be stay­ing at Robert’s house.

After Ste­vie is gone Robert real­izes that he and Ste­vie did have good times, they ran in and out of the house togeth­er, they played on the stoop (“cow­boys and Indi­ans,” which we now see as an unfor­tu­nate choice), ate corn flakes togeth­er. With­out think­ing, Robert pours two bowls of corn­flakes — one for him­self and one for Ste­vie and as he reflects on his good times with Ste­vie, the corn flakes get sog­gy. “He was a nice lit­tle guy, my lit­tle broth­er Ste­vie.” We feel and under­stand his regret at not real­iz­ing that while Ste­vie was still in his life.

John Steptoe

Step­toe was an artist and the illus­tra­tions are done in bold intense col­ors that draw our eyes into the page. Heavy black lines define the sat­u­rat­ed col­ors and make us want to step into this world.

In 1987, John Step­toe was inter­viewed for an arti­cle in The Lion and the Uni­corn. His con­cerns remain our con­cerns thir­ty plus years later.

But black peo­ple are told they’re not tal­ent­ed. We’re not sup­posed to read or pro­duce art; we’re sup­posed to play a lit­tle bas­ket­ball. We are not allowed to make deci­sions. Peo­ple have a def­i­nite way of think­ing about work­ing class peo­ple. But most good things that come out of this soci­ety come from the work­ing class. So I bear the bur­den of talk­ing about this to peo­ple. When I hold teacher work­shops, I am not afraid to say I am racist. We are all racist. When I talk to librar­i­ans I tell them to write let­ters to edi­tors say­ing, we are tired of what they’re pub­lish­ing because all the kids we’re teach­ing are not Dick and Jane. They don’t live in that world, they don’t look like that, they don’t talk like that, and they are being hurt and need some­thing bet­ter. I’m proud of Ste­vie because it addressed itself to work­ing class kids. But I can’t just do that any­more. I have to explore oth­er things.”

Mufaro's Beautiful DaughtersStep­toe want­ed to explore his African roots. In the same The Lion and the Uni­corn inter­view in 1987, Step­toe said of Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters:

… I want­ed to find out about African cul­ture. And my research took me to south­east Africa where there was trade with Chi­na as far back as 500 B.C. The sto­ry that I found was a fairy tale record­ed by a mis­sion­ary. It was orig­i­nal­ly called “The Sto­ry of Five Heads.” It took me about a year to research the sto­ry and about anoth­er year and a half to write and illus­trate it. I hear tell you are sup­posed to do three books a year and sup­port your­self that way, so that was not a great way to make a liv­ing. But the pic­tures are good qual­i­ty, it took a lot of work and I feel good about it.”

The illus­tra­tions are more than “good qual­i­ty.” They are arrest­ing, awe-inspir­ing. Every detail of bird feath­er or flower is exquis­ite­ly rendered.

And the sto­ry itself is so sat­is­fy­ing. Based on an African folk-tale, it is the sto­ry of two beau­ti­ful sis­ters, Man­yara and Niasha. But they are not the same. Man­yara has a bad tem­per, seems always unhap­py and teas­es her sis­ter, “when­ev­er her father’s back was turned.” Man­yara expects to be queen and tells Niasha, “You will be a ser­vant in my house­hold.” Niasha has no ambi­tions to roy­al­ty and is hap­py grow­ing mil­let, sun­flow­ers, yams, and veg­eta­bles and befriend­ing a small gar­den snake, Nyaka.

When the King announces that he is look­ing for a queen, Mufaro decides to accom­pa­ny both of his daugh­ters to the roy­al city. Man­yara goes ahead at night, want­i­ng to be the first and ensure her place on the throne. She encoun­ters a hun­gry boy and does not offer food. She spurns an old woman’s advice.

Mufaro and Niasha are wor­ried about Manyara’s dis­ap­pear­ance but even­tu­al­ly set off for the roy­al city. When they encounter the hun­gry boy, Niasha gives him a yam. She gives sun­flower seeds to the old woman.

At the roy­al city, Man­yara rush­es out to tell them of a mon­ster sit­ting on the king’s throne. Niasha enters the throne room and finds the gar­den snake that she had loved.

He is also the king as well as the small boy and the old woman. He has wit­nessed the dif­fer­ence in the daugh­ters and asks Niasha to mar­ry him.

This is not an unfa­mil­iar sto­ry, but we don’t need sur­prise to be sat­is­fied. Per­haps we are hard-wired to love the jus­tice in this book. Good­ness is reward­ed. Self­ish­ness gets its right desserts. Would that that were always true!

Dur­ing Steptoe’s twen­ty year career (he died far too young at age 38) he illus­trat­ed 16 pic­ture books, eleven of which he wrote him­self and five by oth­er authors (includ­ing All Us Come Cross the Water by Lucille Clifton, one of our favorite pic­ture book writ­ers). With many libraries still closed because of the pan­dem­ic, access to books can be lim­it­ed, but one oth­er Step­toe book avail­able online is Baby Says.

Baby SaysThe text con­sists of only a few words typ­i­cal of very young chil­dren: Uh-oh, Here, No, no, Okay, and Baby says. The qui­et art shows two chil­dren, one a baby in a playpen and the oth­er, old­er, build­ing with blocks on the floor out­side the playpen. Baby throws a ted­dy bear out of the playpen, and the old­er boy returns it. Again baby throws the bear, again the boy returns it. The third time the bear hits the boy in the head, so he takes the baby out of the playpen. And, as babies delight in doing, the baby top­ples the blocks. A word­less spread shows the boy glar­ing at the baby, but on the next page baby charms the boy with a smile and a touch to his face, and they end up build­ing blocks together.

As Horn Book arti­cle in 2003 points out, Baby Says is part of a con­tin­uüm. Kath­leen T. Horn­ing writes,

Over the span of his twen­ty-year career, Step­toe returned again and again to the com­plex­i­ties of sib­ling rela­tion­ships, approach­ing the sub­ject each time from a slight­ly dif­fer­ent angle. What remained con­stant was his gift for real­ism, first in lan­guage and lat­er in illus­tra­tions. What changed was his artistry: as his pic­tures became more detailed and real­is­tic, he depend­ed on them to car­ry more of the sto­ry, and the sto­ries them­selves were more care­ful­ly craft­ed. Ulti­mate­ly, with Baby Says, he was able to tell a sto­ry with just six words: baby; says; here; uh, oh; okay; and no.

Every child deserves to hear them­selves in books, and Step­toe let us hear their voic­es. Step­toe saw a “great and dis­as­trous need for books that black chil­dren could hon­est­ly relate to … [and] I was amazed that no one had suc­cess­ful­ly writ­ten a book in the dia­logue black chil­dren speak.”

Two of Steptoe’s books were named Calde­cott Hon­or Books, and two won the Coret­ta Scott King Award for illus­tra­tion. Wash­ing­ton Post arti­cle calls Baby Says “a ten­der kiss good-bye — a gen­tle hug from Steptoe.”

We miss him.

Daddy is a Monster ... SometimesBooks by John Steptoe

Ste­vie, 1969
Uptown, 1970
Train Ride, 1971
Birth­day, 1972
My Spe­cial Best Words, 1974
Dad­dy is a Mon­ster … Some­times, 1980
Jef­frey Bear Cleans Up His Act, 1983
The Sto­ry of Jump­ing Mouse, 1984
Mar­cia, 1986
Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters, 1987
Baby Says, 1988

All Us Come Cross the Water by Lucille CliftonIllus­trat­ed by John Steptoe

Moth­er Croc­o­dile by Rosa Guy, 1961
All Us Come Cross the Water
by Lucille Clifton, 1973
She Come Bring­ing Me That Lit­tle Baby Girl
by Eloise Green­field, 1974
OUT­side INside Poems by Arnold Adoff, 1981
All the Col­ors of the Race by Arnold Adoff, 1982

Arti­cle Links

John Step­toe,” Wendy Wat­son, Wendy Wat­son’s Blog, 11 Nov 2014

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