WITH ORDINARY crayons, pencils, pens, inks, watercolors, airbrushes and paints, the late John Steptoe constructed an extraordinary world. Lush with color, his books led thousands of children, especially African-American children, on new adventures -- exploring imaginative terrains from urban neighborhoods to ancient Zimbabwe.
"One of my incentives for getting into writing children's books," noted Steptoe in an autobiographical essay, "was the great and disastrous need for books that black children could honestly relate to."
Steptoe's work made an auspicious debut when Life magazine, in its Aug. 29, 1969 issue, printed his children's book, Stevie, in its entirety before its publication by Harper & Row. Steptoe was barely 19 at the time. He had begun to write and illustrate Stevie when he was 16 years old.
Stevie is the story of a little boy named Robert who is forced to tolerate his mother's willingness to take care of Stevie -- a preschooler -- who never goes home until the weekends. But at the end of the story, when Stevie's parents take him away for good, Robert misses the boy who left "his dirty footprints all over my bed. And my momma never said nothin' to him." And, "I think he liked my momma better than his own, cause he used to call his mother 'Mother' and he called my momma 'Mommy.' " Robert, an only child, thinks of Stevie "kinda like a little brother," and inadvertently lets his breakfast of "corn flakes get soggy thinkin' about him."
Steptoe's words appear below his photograph on the jacket copy of Stevie: "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 . . ."
And a fine painter he was. Stevie is awash in what would become Steptoe's signature colors in his early work: chartreuse, fuchsia, turquoise, scarlet, royal blues and purples, emerald greens, tangerine, topaz, and sunbright yellows.
Stevie, which received the Society of Illustrators' Gold Medal, proved not to be a fluke. In addition to illustrating the work of other writers, including Rosa Guy's Mother Crocodile (Delacorte), which won the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, Steptoe followed Stevie by writing and illustrating Uptown (Harper & Row, 1970), the story of two boys walking around Harlem and trying to decide what to become when they grow up. When they visit a bookstore on 135th Street, one of them says, "I'm gonna be a brother when I grow up, and anybody wants to know anythin' about black, just ask me, cause I know my stuff." Uptown's pages are a mix of cotton candy pinks side-by-side with electric oranges, greens, purples and blues.
Train Ride (Harper & Row, 1971) appeared next -- dedicated to Steptoe's father. The protagonist Charles (same name as Steptoe's brother) takes his pals to 42nd Street (Times Square) after he is told by Chickie, "I bet you can't go there by yourself." Accepting the challenge, Charles and his friends sneak onto the subway train and arrive safely at Times Square where they see "this big iron with steam comin' out of it." At the end of their adventure, the question becomes how to get back home. They do get home but Charles admits, "Oh, wow, did I get a whippin'." They all did.
Steptoe's Birthday (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972) was dedicated to his mother but it is the story of Javaka (named after Steptoe's son) who is looking forward to his eighth birthday in a make-believe town called Yoruba. Here Steptoe explains his technique: "My canvas begins with a 'blacked out' surface of burnt umber, representing no light. Color being light that takes on the shape of objects, I then begin blocking in with color, to turn on the lights."
In Birthday, Steptoe's paintings blend traditional African designs and commonplace items. Tablecloths, walls and a merchant's sign are transformed into an intricate display of the old and the new.
Many other books followed, and then came The Story of Jumping Mouse (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1984), a Caldecott Honor Book, which retells a Native American legend. Steptoe states that this book is "about my own hopes and dreams." The story is that of a mouse who is looking for the "far-off land." The little mouse needs help to find this territory and is first befriended by Magic Frog who gives mouse jumping legs like that of a frog. His hind legs gone now, mouse has better ones to travel with. When Jumping Mouse meets a lazy fat mouse, though, he is ridiculed and enticed to remain by a stream rather than go off looking for the far-off land. Jumping Mouse stays for a while until he is almost as fat as the old mouse. Danger comes to the stream and Jumping Mouse barely escapes.
Jumping Mouse, who is kindly, continues on his way until he meets a blind bison, to whom he gives his own eyes. The newly sighted bison leads Jumping Mouse to the foot of the mountains but is unable to take him aross. A wolf, without the sense of smell, takes Jumping Mouse through the mountains, but only after the mouse gives him a sense of smell. Finally, when Jumping Mouse has helped all the animals who need him he finds himself unable to manage and he begins to cry. Magic Frog appears again and tells him to jump, to jump higher and higher. The mouse jumps and as he jumps he changes. "Jumping Mouse," he heard Magic Frog call. "I give you a new name. You are now called Eagle, and you will live in the far-off land forever."
Steptoe's next book, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale (Lothrop, 1987), was immediately and widely acclaimed. An oversized book with magnificent pictures set in the ruins of ancient Zimbabwe, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters is the story of two sisters -- wholly different in temperament -- who travel with their father to the palace of a king who is looking for a wife. The mean and haughty Manyara loses out to Nyasha who is kind. Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters is nothing if not spectacular, and it too became a Caldecott Honor Book.
Baby Says (Lothrop, 1988) was Steptoe's last book before he died last year from AIDS at the age of 38. It is the warm story of a boy and his baby brother. The baby's repeated "Uh, oh" finally engages his brother's attention and the two of them concentrate on one another, the older boy's blocks forgotten. In soft pastels, Baby Says is a tender kiss goodbye -- a gentle hug from Steptoe.
His death was widely mourned. The poet Lucille Clifton, one of whose children's books was illustrated by Steptoe, said, "The loss of his spirit and his talent is a grievous loss. I don't think anyone can fill his space." Eloise Greenfield, another children's author who worked with Steptoe, remembered how he "spoke often about his commitment to create for children the kind of books that were not available when he was a child, authentic books which celebrate African-American life. His work was his personal gift to the children."
In a recent issue of the Horn Book, a magazine devoted to the criticism of children's book, its editor Anita Silvey sums Steptoe up best:
"There is an image of John Steptoe, accepting the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (Lothrop) and giving one of the finest speeches I have ever heard from a podium: 'I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people. I am the rule.' "
Sharon Bell Mathis is the author of a Newbery honor book, "The Hundred Penny Box," and, most recently, "Teacup Full of Roses."