Friday, February 19, 2010


John Steptoe ~ Harper & Row, 1969

My final post for American American History Month, and many thanks to Esme and Dawn for helping me sniff out some classics this week... and I have to say, when I read this to my son for the first time last night, I couldn't help but cry... thus is the lot of the mother of an only child... and looking up the history of this book makes me weep even more. The only other book by Mr. Steptoe we've read previously was Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, after we saw a fabulous theatrical production of it last year by the Dallas Children's Theatre. There is a huge leap of artistic growth between that book published in 1987, and this one, a story that was created and drawn beginning when the author was only 16 years old. If I was looking for an African American children's book pioneer, Mr. Steptoe would certainly be it... What an extraordinary talent.

One day my momma told me, "You know you're gonna have a little friend come stay with you." And I said, "Who is it?" And she said, "You know my friend Mrs. Mack? Well, she has to work all week and I'm gonna keep her little boy." I asked, "For how long?" She said, "He'll stay all week and his mother will come pick him up on Saturdays."And so Robert is thrown into living with Stevie, who has a knack for foiling all his fun. So many thing go on within this story. There is the anxiety of the separation of mother and child. The rivalry between the two makeshift siblings. It's filled with compassion, and childhood innocence of bigger, grown-up world problems. All told in Robert's sweet, funny, jealous and frustrated voice. It's when Stevie has to leave that the true spirit shines through. What is so moving about this book is that the story is universal, and the feeling of loss is something every child and adult can relate to.

I'm often inspired to write to children's book authors, thanking them for the dear moments when they reach from the pages and shift our hearts. This would have been one of those times, though sadly, Mr. Steptoe passed away before he even reached 40. He is quoted on the dust jacket...

"I am a painter and not yet an artist. I don't just happen to be black. I also happen to have the ambition of being a fine painter. This is the beginning of my life and this book is one of the things that has happened to me so far."

I hope he understood how grandly he'd achieved that ambition. What an incredible legacy to leave behind for all the writers and illustrators for whom he helped pave the way. Hats off.


Kimberly said...

Your post is a beautiful tribute to Mr. Steptoe. Thank you for an introduction to this book and background information on the author.

Julie Falatko said...

Have you read "Dear Genius"? If not, run out RIGHT NOW and get it! It's by Ursula Nordstrom, who was the children's book editor at Harper & Row in the 40s-80s. She was an unstoppable letter writer, and the book (which is deliciously hefty) is a compilation of all her letters. You will just die reading it. She was the editor for Maurice Sendak and Russell Hoban among others. It's so great to read about how they debated a bit about what kind of animals to make Frances and her family, for instance. But she was also the one who "discovered" John Steptoe, and I think he wrote Stevie when he was 17 or something, and it's really wonderful to read about how she tries to get him to do his best work, and really encourage him, and is just so awed by his young talent.

Seriously, "Dear Genius" was tailor-made for you! (And, well, for me...I read it a few years ago and -- uncharacteristic for me and my lagging brain cells -- I remember SO MUCH from it. It's amazing.)

Unknown said...

I remember reading this book, and it was amazing. Thanks for reminding me about it.

R.M. Rivera said...

I love this book! I remember reading this when I was a child. My mom bought this for my younger brothers and I. What amazed me was how young the author was who wrote and illustrated it.

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