His first book, Stevie, was published when Steptoe was still in his late teens. It was the first book of its type created by an African-American writer and illustrator to be significantly honored. His two follow ups to Stevie are Steptoe’s most original books, both published by Harper & Row when the artist was still very young. Uptown (1970) and Train Ride (1971) are largely forgotten books today. Rereading them is a revelation. They are a reminder of the raw vitality and unique language that books for young people can aspire to if editors and publishers were willing to give artists such freedom. These books are prime examples of how experimental this field of publishing was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One can’t help having the response that these amazing books would find difficulty finding a mainstream publisher today.
What makes these books different and worth revisiting? It is the language, as well as the art, that make them distinctive. Both books are told in the first person voice of urban boys. The writing has a documentary feel to it, as if the writer had actually recorded real kids on the street. They do not speak in proper English. Instead, the language used here is a rhythmic jive talk that adds both humor and spirit to the story. Although this language may seem dated today, Steptoe has cleared captured a time and place: New York City in the late 1960s. The art, while less steeped in realism than Steptoe’s later books, captures a real sense of street life. These books are the antithesis of the modern children’s book, for there is nothing “cute” about them. The colors are dark, the lines are bold but never slick and the color seems to be applied with thick paints. While painted, the images seem to retain the effect of stained glass or a collage. I also admire the fact that the characters never seem to be smiling, nor do we even see their eyes. Yet still it works and these are not necessarily read as “sad” books. Even the layout of text to pictures is unusual. Many of the image spreads are without text at all. The pages that are text-only maintain a significant amount of white space. By utilizing a jaggedly paced design, Steptoe broke the rules and created something special. It feels like the picture book equivalent to late Miles Davis era jazz.
In Uptown, two young boys who are best friends, idle around their Harlem neighborhood. The pair ponder what they want to be when they grow up. They discuss junkies, hippies, the Black Power movement, speaking Arabic and joining the army. “Maybe I’ll be a cop,” Dennis says, only to have his friend reply, “No, man, nobody digs cops, you wouldn’t have no friends.”