Thursday, December 11, 2014

John Steptoe’s Socially Observant Picture Books

John Steptoe (1950-1989) was a well-known children’s book illustrator.  His prolific output won him several awards.  I prefer Steptoe’s earlier, and largely forgotten work, to his later more well-known titles such as Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1988).  There are several reasons.  First, and probably most importantly, is that these books portrayed a realistic, somewhat gritty, contemporary urban setting from the unflinchingly honest perspective of young black boys.  These books were boldly unique and obviously the product of an energetic young man. 

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.”

The book has no moralizing, it is simply a realistic portrait of two friends.  Perhaps Steptoe wanted to portray a slice of life from a child’s perspective that was not being represented in children’s books, or other media, at the time.  He succeeded.  In fact, he achieved what he set out to do so well that I believe contemporary children’s writers/ illustrators can still look to this book as an example.  How many modern books truly exist from this approach, rather than nostalgia or an idea of what is marketable? Why not be an astute observer of children, even when their behavior is not so typically associated with what is associated with a “typical” childhood.
In Train Ride, a group of kids in (Brooklyn or the Bronx) hang out on a stoop and wonder about the adults they see arriving home from the subway station.  They decide that they want to sneak onto the train in order to discover the big city for themselves and have a “boss” time.   They sneak under the gate without paying and get out in Times Square.  Upon exiting they walk past some porno theaters, and hang out in an arcade.  They are fascinated by the bright lights, the people’s clothing, the movie theaters and shops. 

When it gets late, the boys worry about getting back home.  Will they be able to make it back and sneak on another train without cash?  They finally make it home safely and are proud of each other and their parentless journey.  They laugh and make jokes about how their parents will beat them, but it was worth it.  In fact, the boys do get a beating, which prevents them from going back to the city right away.  Still they brag about their journey to their friends.  With some mischief, Steptoe alludes to the fact that these brave boys are bound to try it again.  Even though this book has more of a “message” then Uptown, it is again clearly from the kid’s perspectives.  The reader is left to make up their own mind between what is right and wrong.

I wish Steptoe continued making books like these, because in my mind, he was on a roll.  I suppose however, that as his success grew, and he became a father himself, his perspective began to shift.  His later books are still great, just not quite as edgy as these earlier ones.

 Sadly, Steptoe died in New York at the age of 39 from AIDS.
I wrote about another Steptoe book in an earlier Blog entry here.

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