Javaka Steptoe was in the shower of a Seattle hotel room on Monday morning when he got the call.
The Brookyln-based author and illustrator was aware that his latest book, “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artists Jean-Michel Basquiat,” was in contention for the Caldecott Medal, but that it also faced stiff competition.
So, into the shower he went. Moments later?
“My girlfriend started yelling, ‘Javaka! Javaka! The phone!’
He quickly got out and “tried not to get my phone soaked,” as he learned his book on the late-New York neo-expressionist artist had been recognized as the most distinguished American picture book for children from the past year.
“I haven’t really had the chance to just sit down and think about what that really means,” he said.
Steptoe, who also won the 2017 Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award, spent the week in Seattle as part of the Antioch University School of Education’s second annual Multicultural Children’s Literature Celebration.
On Thursday, his week of school visits brought him to Queen Anne Elementary for a pair of assemblies, as he captured the attention of his young audiences with a discussion of his book, before bringing students on stage to act out each page. Each session was capped with a question-and-answer period, as Steptoe fielded queries on everything from his reasons for writing, to where he finds inspiration.
Also the author and illustrator of, “Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow,” on the early life of iconic rocker Jimi Hendrix, Steptoe said its important to reflect on the lives on creative multicultural figures, and share those stories with a new generation.
“You actually learn how people accomplish things,” he said. “It’s not that you’re just walking along, and all of a sudden you’re doing something great. You’re honing that craft — most of these people all of their lives — and they also do it in situations where sometimes people are supportive and sometimes people are not supportive, and so as a child, I’m hoping that means to them that they should stay strong and be proud of the things that they really love, and pursue them, and have confidence in that.”
He also hoped to convey the importance of persistence in pursuing their passions.
“It really doesn’t matter what it is,” he said. “If I want to be a baseball player or a scientist, I still have to investigate and commit time and energy and resources, and there’s certain things you just have to do across the board.”
Dr. Christie Kaaland, a core faculty member in Antioch’s School of Education, praised Steptoe for both his work and demeanor.
“Whether it’s little kids wanting to tell him a story, or librarians that get so excited about having a Caldecott winner and wanting to talk to him about that, he’s been incredibly gracious.”
Kaaland also commended her fellow instructor, Jeana Hrepich, for making it possible to launch the literature celebration.
Last year, several guest authors descended on Dearborn Park Elementary to present their work, while pre-service teaching students from Antioch led lessons on multicultural literature.
For the second iteration, they reached out to Steptoe to do something different, with a full week of appearances across the city, well before they knew he would arrive the winner of a major literary honor.
“I had an inclination that this was an amazing book … but this was the best we could possibly imagine,” she said.
Kaaland said with the increasing awareness of the inequities between schools in wealthier communities and those with fewer resources, they asked Steptoe if he would give an extra presentation for schools that didn’t have a PTA budget for an author visit for every two, like Queen Anne, that could contribute. He agreed.
Meanwhile, 20 percent of book sales will be used to purchase multicultural literature for several Seattle schools with high free-and-reduced-lunch rates that have no library budget.
For Steptoe, the school visits are a chance to connect with his audience.
“I don’t ever want to lose my connection to the audience I’m speaking to,” he said. “Every time I do a presentation, or every time I teach a class, I hope to learn a better understanding of how to communicate with them.”
And as he returns to Brooklyn, he does so as a member of elite company, joining the likes of Maurice Sendak and William Steig as a Caldecott Medal winner. Though, he’s still navigating that label.
“I’m going to find out exactly what that means very soon.”
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