Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat Book Poster Image
Exuberant bio celebrates artist who had success when young.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Biographical info about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Explanation of some of the symbols he used. Information about graffiti, art, and the art world. Picture of Picasso's painting Guernica.

Positive Messages

Parents can support their kids' talents. Even if you come from a low-income immigrant family, you can pursue art and education. Art helps us make sense of experiences and express thoughts and feelings. Kids can enjoy museums. Art doesn't have to be neat or inside the lines.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Basquiat is an African-American artist. Though he came from a low-income family, had a bad accident, and had to deal with his mom's mental illness, he pursued his dreams and triumphed. His mom supported her son's interests and talents, encouraging him to draw and taking him to museums.

Violence & Scariness

When he was 7, Basquiat was hit by a car in a bad accident. His mom developed mental illness and had to leave home. The note at the end explains that Basquiat struggled with drug addiction and died at 27.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is the 2017 Caldecott Medal-winning picture book biography of Basquiat, who grew up in Brooklyn the son of a Haitian dad and Puerto Rican mom. By his 20s he was an art star, hanging with Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Madonna. He played hard and died young of a drug overdose, information that's dealt with in an author's note. The bio emphasizes the support Basquiat got from his mom, as well as the challenges he faced, including his mom's mental illness. The book is written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers), who understands the challenges. His own dad, John Steptoe, was an award-winning illustrator who died young, and his mom suffered from mental illness. Steptoe illustrates the book in his own vibrant style, incorporating trademark elements of Basquiat's art, and his empathy shines through.

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What's the story?

RADIANT CHILD: THE STORY OF YOUNG ARTIST JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT is the biography of the young New York-based artist who came to fame in the 1970s and '80s. Born to a Haitian dad and a mom of Puerto Rican heritage, Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn. His mom loved art and made sure her young son was exposed to museums, poetry, and theater and encouraged him to draw. Challenges arose when he was badly injured when hit by a car and, later, when his mom developed mental health issues and had to leave the family. But Basquiat stayed focused as an artist, and as a teen moved to the Lower East Side, then a gritty neighborhood teeming with excitement. He started out as a graffiti artist, and his work was quickly elevated to galleries and he became celebrated while still in his 20s. Text at the end of the book notes that he died when only 27.

Is it any good?

Much more than the story of a young artist, this excellent biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a celebration of art and a call for young people to be creative. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is a work of art itself and celebrates creativity in all its messy glory. It focuses on Basquiat's early influences and his laser focus on and devotion to his work, and it carries a strong emotional tug. Though the family wasn't well-off, it was rich in art, thanks to Basquiat's mom, who made sure her son had plenty of arts enrichment and lots of opportunity to draw. Author/illustrator Javaka Steptoe chooses just the right, accessible detail. In a small but poignant moment, the mom sits on the floor and "draws with Jean-Michel on his father's old work papers." So we feel Basquiat's heartbreaking loss when she has to leave the family.

Steptoe's illustrations, made of mixed media with found objects on wood, explode with color and detail and collage elements, underlining the message that art doesn't have to be neat or stay inside the lines to be beautiful. Steptoe explains that he did this to invite readers "to create using the materials, people, and places in their environment." The book feels like one big riotous creative explosion -- Basquiat's and Steptoe's for sure -- but the underlying message is that readers, too, can express themselves and create freely.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the illustrations in Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. What materials did author-illustrator Javaka Steptoe use? How many can you identify?

  • Do you agree that art can be "sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still beautiful"?

  • In the art, can you find pictures of the crowns Basquiat liked to draw? Can you find images of the body parts he learned when his mom gave him the anatomy book?

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