Each month, the Chancellor selects a children’s book that she feels is inspirational and informative for the students, parents, and staff members who make up the City’s public schools. For past book selections, review the “Book of the Month” category right here on The Morning Bell.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
By Written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
Illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Hachette Book Group, 2016
The young Jean-Michel Basquiat yearns to become a famous and successful artist. Every day, he spends hours drawing on his father’s old work papers, honing his personal style, and turning images from his dreams into colorful reality. Supportive of their son’s artistic endeavors, Jean-Michel’s father, Gerard, plays jazz records, while Jean-Michel’s mother, Matilde, reads poetry aloud, takes him to museums, and encourages her son to draw inspiration from the sights, sounds, and people of their native New York City. While young Jean-Michel’s drawings are “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird,” they are “somehow still beautiful,” as the author, Javaka Steptoe, notes.
As the book continues, we see Jean-Michel continue to draw and develop his art style as he grows out of his adolescence and into his adult years. Despite a number of challenges, including a major car accident that hospitalizes him for months as a child, followed by his mother’s descent into mental illness, Jean-Michel remains focused on his craft and eventually becomes one of the defining artists of the 1980s. “SAMO©,” or the name Jean-Michel begins to sign under his artwork, fulfills his lifelong dream of becoming a famous and successful artist, and he is able to do it by staying true to himself and the world around him without compromising his unique style and vision.
What I loved about this book is that Jean-Michel Basquiat’s story is a universal one. He knew what he wanted to become at an early age and began working tirelessly to achieve his goals. Despite not having a “traditional” art style and background, Basquiat stayed the course and persisted in the face of many challenges. I also loved Javaka Steptoe’s illustrations throughout the book, as he created original images for the story that are inspired by Basquiat’s own work.
While this book does not delve into Basquiat’s drug addictions or early death at the age of 27, I feel that there are tremendous messages contained within regarding the importance of perseverance and nurturing “talent,” even when that talent is not immediately recognizable in a traditional sense. For students, this is a story about overcoming people’s perceptions that are based on ethnicity, background, and family circumstances; parents and teachers, meanwhile, will find that this is a book that reminds us that we must find the talent hidden within all of our children and students.
As educators, the sooner we can find out about our students’ interests and talents, the better. Teachers might want to request letters from students in which they define their wishes, aspirations, and perceived talents during the first few days of school. This exercise would be a wonderful way for teachers to establish personal connections with their students. For children in lower grades whose writing skills are not up to the challenge, these types of home writing assignments can encourage parents to start conversations about your child’s dreams in order to prepare them for classroom discussion. Let us start this school year hearing our children’s voices and their dreams, and perhaps, we can share our own aspirations, too.