Javaka Steptoe (1971-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1971, in New York, NY; Ethnicity: "African American." Education: Cooper Union, B.F.A., 1995.
Office—P.O. Box 330-170, Brooklyn, NY 11233-0170.
Artist and illustrator; Brooklyn Children's Museum, Brooklyn, NY, art teacher. Exhibitions: Steptoe's work has been exhibited in group and solo shows, including Legends, Folklore, and Real Life Stories, Art Institute of Chicago, 2000; and Original Art Work Show, Society of Illustrators, 1998, 2001.
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and Notable Children's Book selection, American Library Association, 1998, Outstanding Children's Literature Work finalist, NAACP Image Awards, Reading Magic Award, Parenting magazine, and Children's Books Mean Business and Not Just for Children Anymore selections, Children's Book Council, all for In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African-Americans Celebrating Fathers.
(And illustrator) The Jones Family Express, Lee & Low (New York, NY), 2003.
(And contributor) In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African-Americans Celebrating Fathers (poems), Lee & Low (New York, NY), 1997.
Charlotte Zolotow, Do You Know What I'll Do? (new illustrated edition of 1958 publication), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Nikki Grimes, A Pocketful of Poems, Clarion (New York, NY), 2001.
Karen English, Hot Day on Abbott Avenue, Clarion (New York, NY), 2004.
Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Javaka Steptoe received an early exposure to the world of art as the son of Stephanie Douglas, a respected artist, and the late John Steptoe, a pioneering illustrator who broke new ground publishing African-American vernacular when he wrote and designed the acclaimed book Stevie in 1969. Young Javaka and sister, Bweela, grew up in this artistic atmosphere. "I always drew around the house," Steptoe told Horn Book interviewer Rudine Sims Bishop. Like his father, he attended New York's High School of Art and Design, then took his art degree from Cooper Union before beginning a career teaching art at the Brooklyn Children's Museum.
At the same time, Steptoe took his portfolio to publisher Lee & Low. From there, the young artist was offered the assignment to illustrate the poetry anthology In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African-Americans Celebrating Fathers. The project hit home for Steptoe, who not only provided the colorful images but also contributed a poem, "Seeds." This tribute to his father led Bishop to ask if Steptoe were following in his late father's footsteps. "I've thought about that a lot," he replied. "I've come to this really simple conclusion: I might do the same things that he does, but I can't do them the way he did them, so I do things the way that I do them. I don't have a problem being identified with them, but ultimately I will make my own footsteps."
In Steptoe fashion, the illustrations for In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall are a collage of diverse materials, from torn bits of paper to drawings and found-objects, that are set as a large canvas and then photographed for the corresponding page. According to a Publishers Weekly contributor, "the emotional range of the poems prompted Steptoe's diverse spectrum of artistic approaches. For example, for the poem 'Lightning Jumpshot' by Michael Burgess, Steptoe used floorboards he had found to create the look and feel of a basketball court." He then overlaid wire mesh to give the feeling of watching a game through a fence.
In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall was published to positive reviews from such critics as Booklist's GraceAnne A. De-Candido, who praised Steptoe's "splendid series of images in mixed media." The "stunning illustrations," as Deborah Taylor of Horn Book called them, not only set the tone of the poems as a paean to African-American fatherhood, but even elevate them: "In certain pairings of poem and image, the match is nothing less than perfect." The collection received many honors, including a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Steptoe.
For his next publication, Steptoe was challenged to revisualize a decades-old children's favorite. The original 1958 edition of Charlotte Zolotow's Do You Know What I'll Do? was illustrated with soft pencil drawings by Garth Williams. The original sketches matched the tone of the poetry, described as "dreamy [and] quiet" by Zolotow on her home page. For the 2000 reprinting, Step-toe opted for a different approach, contrasting the expressions of affection with bold collages and recasting Zolotow's loving and imaginative siblings as African-American children. In the artist's rendering, the children's "love for each other is tangible, yet he injects the same playfulness and humor inherent in the text," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Similar praise was directed toward A Pocketful of Poems, published in 2001. In illustrating Nikki Grimes's verse, Steptoe pulls off what a Publishers Weekly writer called "an extraordinary feat" by sculpting character portraits "from construction paper in a single, uninterrupted linear outline."
In 2003, Steptoe moved from artist to author with the publication of his self-illustrated The Jones Family Express. Steven is a young boy who is fascinated by his globe-trotting Aunt Carolyn, who sends him postcards from every place she visits. Now she is coming home, and Steven wants to give her the perfect present. He looks in various stores, but nothing seems right, so Steven decides to make his own present. He takes an old toy train from his uncle's house, repaints it, and glues pictures of family members into the windows, creating a unique celebration of the Jones family.
In The Jones Family Express, Steptoe uses mixed-media collages for his illustrations, and once again critics generally found them creative and colorful. "Young readers will identify with" the story, Eve Ortega wrote in School Library Journal, "but it is the illustrations that will cause them to linger over this book and delight in the colorful details." Stamps, postcards, and photographs reinforce Steven's wonder at Carolyn's travels, while the text itself appears to be a postcard or letter. Although the collages are generally stylized, Steptoe's hand-drawn "faces infuse the compositions with an unexpected realism," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. The illustrations also reflect the affection that is evident in the story: "the warmth of familial bonds emanates from each spread," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Asked by an interviewer from Brooklyn Expedition about his work style, Steptoe noted that the word usually precedes the image: "I don't know how easy or hard it would be to do it in reverse. But I usually read the story, read the poem, read whatever it is I'm working on at the time, and try and capture the essence. A lot of thinking, so I get paid to daydream."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 9, 2000, Julia Bookman, review of Do You Know What I'll Do?, p. D3.
Black Issues Book Review, May, 2001, "Daddy's Here," p. 76.
Booklist, February 15, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African-Americans Celebrating Fathers, p. 1007; February 15, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of A Pocketful of Poems, p. 1154; February 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg and Hazel Rochman, review of In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, p. 1028; May 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of The Jones Family Express, p. 1606.
Boston Herald, January 25, 1998, Karyn Miller-Medzon, review of In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, p. 61.
Horn Book, January-February, 1998, Deborah Taylor, review of In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, p. 87; March-April, 1998, Rudine Sims Bishop, "Following in Their Father's Paths," p. 249.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2003, review of The Jones Family Express, p. 684.
Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2001, review of A Pocketful of Poems, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly, October 27, 1997, review of In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, p. 74; December 22, 1997, "Flying Starts: Six Children's Authors and Artists Discuss Their Fall '97 Debuts," p. 28; September 11, 2000, review of Do You Know What I'll Do?, p. 89; January 15, 2001, review of A Pocketful of Poems, p. 76; April 14, 2003, review of The Jones Family Express, pp. 69-70.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), February 1, 1998, Babette Morgan, review of In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, p. D6.
School Library Journal, February, 1998, Dawn Amsberry, review of In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, p. 118; September, 2000, Nina Lindsay, review of Do You Know What I'll Do?, p. 212; May, 2001, Lauralyn Persson, review of A Pocketful of Poems, p. 141; July, 2003, Eve Ortega, review of The Jones Family Express, pp. 106-107.
Brooklyn Expedition, http://www.brooklynexpedition.org/ (April 6, 2004), "An Interview with Javaka Steptoe."
Charlotte Zolotow Home Page, http://www.charlottezolotow.com/ (April 6, 2004).
Javaka Steptoe Home Page, http://www.javaka.com/ (February 16, 2004).
Lee & Low Books, http://www.leeandlow.com/ (February 16, 2004), "BookTalk with Javaka Steptoe."*
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