Jean-Michel Basquiat's unique graffiti-style collage art rocketed him to fame in the 1980s. It was unlike anything the art world had ever seen, one part child-like scribbles, one part bright colors, and one part social commentary, inspiring later artists like Banksy to create their own social critique in spray paint.
But before his fame, he was a young boy who found beauty everywhere. Javaka Steptoe creates an homage to his artwork and his childhood on paper with his own cluttered paintings on pieces of wood salvaged from the dumpsters of New York. Anyone familiar with the brief, troubled life of Baquiat may question what business Steptoe has in writing a picture book about him, but Steptoe skims over the most problematic pieces of Basquiat's life (the political messages of his art, his rampant drug use), choosing instead to focus on the artwork and Basquiat's relationship with his mother. There is a long afterword at the back of the book for those who'd like to learn more about Basquiat and Steptoe's inspiration, which includes a small section on motifs Basquiat used throughout his works. This may be an excellent opportunity to introduce children to the role of motifs in art, and other artists work (see the Come Look With Me series here). We believe in the value of teaching art appreciation, and can see the role this picture book can play in that.
On the whole, however, we find this picture book falling a bit flat. The paintings on found wood, while fascinating for some adults, may feel fragmented or confusing to children, and sensitive children may find the story sad or even frightening at points. There are lots of strong picture books for children about artists. We don't think this is one of the greats. We do, however, believe this book is worth a read for anyone interested in modern art history, and particularly the beginnings of the graffiti art movement.
Review by Emily Wright
Emily fell in love with words when she was very young. An avid bibliophile, her collection contains over 400 books (and counting)! She can usually be found with a cup of coffee and her nose in a book (even at work!) Read more of her reviews here
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