“You have the best kids books!”, exclaimed a library patron with her son in tow. Smiling, I thanked the patron and stole a quick glance of the title in her hand. Javaka Steptoe’s Caldecott award-winning Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is as beautiful as you might expect a book about Jean-Michel Basquiat to be. What is particularly unique about this book, in addition to the messages it conveys, is that Steptoe’s illustrations emulate the kind of street art you might find Basquiat himself producing in New York in the 1980s on various organic textures & surfaces. The book itself is a literal work of art.
The dominant message Javaka conveys in this book is simple: imperfection is beauty. Is this not an important and timeless message that we can and should celebrate and teach? Adults and children alike stand to benefit simply by acknowledging this pure and simple wisdom. Determined to create a masterpiece, the narrator notes that young artist Jean-Michel’s pictures “are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird” but they are nonetheless “still beautiful”. I’ll definitely be reading this book to Pebbles, my 8 year-old Blue Heeler dog since I don’t have any human children. I’m a dog mom — does that count? Also, Pebbles embraces the “imperfection is beauty” credo because she likes to rip holes in comforters and knock the trash can over. She gets it. But in total seriousness, spread the aforementioned important message! (Especially in today’s Black Mirror world in which the bizarre expectation and practice is that the images we project of ourselves on social media are disproportionately perfect, happy, and overflowing with rainbows and unicorns). Let us remember that what is flawed is real. Even more?: what is flawed is beautifully and uniquely human.
Other representations of Jean-Michel Basquiat are also available at Davenport Public Library if you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating and legendary artist! For example, check out the 2002 film entitled Basquiat that features David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Benecio del Toro and others alongside Jeffrey Wright who plays the unforgettable part of Jean-Michel. (The late great David Bowie, playing the role of the quirky and iconic Andy Warhol easily makes Basquiat one of my absolutely favorite films.) One particular scene in this film perfectly summarizes the idea that imperfection is beauty when Jean-Michel takes a paintbrush to his girlfriend’s new dress because he thought “it needed something”. In short, this film does an excellent job of illustrating 1980s Brooklyn and how Basquiat went being homeless to a wildly successful artist overnight. Sadly, and as is the case with so many inimitable artists of our generation, however, Basquiat struggled with a drug addiction that would derail him and his career. What Basquiat left behind–his legacy–is far greater and more memorable then any of the challenges he endured in his lifetime.
Also amazing? Check out Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, a book of poetry by the amazing Maya Angelou with illustrations by the one and only Jean-Michel Basquiat!