Book cover for Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe

Dreams of a young artist: Role models and inspiration

My 6-year-old recently declared she is going to be an artist when she grows up.

When she does arts and crafts, she gets in this zone that is beautiful to watch. You can see she is feeling inspired, thinking about what new things she can try and so totally focused. Neither me, her father nor her older sister is particularly interested in art so I am not sure if this is common for kids to do, but it seems to me like she has a special connection with art.

Wanting to provide her with more opportunities to explore this passion, I recently signed her up for an after school art class. She was pretty disappointed after the first class, “We just coloured, mom,” she said. Then we went to the National Gallery of Canada this weekend. We hadn’t been for years so I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew there were activities for kids. What we discovered was great. My kid was in heaven. She got to make paintings using new types of tools and by mixing texturing materials with paints. She dove into the experience and loved it.

Jean-Michel's painting

When we walked through the gift shop with all of its beautiful souvenirs at the end of our visit, I noticed a display for Black History Month. Amongst the more adult and academic books was a children’s book, Radiant Child, about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a black painter from New York who became famous in the 1980s. The cover, with its gorgeous, vibrant collage made of wood bits drew me to the book. It is written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe, himself a Black artist living in New York.

I showed it to my daughter, thinking she would be excited to see a book about a brown-skinned kid like her with a passion for art. At first, she rejected it, “he’s not a girl”. It was another reminder of how much it matters that our children see the intersection of their multiple identities in the books they read…but she warmed up to the book and we ended up taking it home.

She loved the images and the message that “art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean- and definitely not inside the lines- to be beautiful.” She couldn’t believe what Steptoe was able to do with those pieces of wood all put together to create the images for the book. Beyond the story about Basquiat’s formative years, seeing those images opened up new possibilities in art for her. She quickly went to find out more and looked up Basquiat’s work, appreciating what is possible when you permit yourself to colour outside the lines.

image of Jean-Michel Basquiqt as an adult
image of Jean-Michel Basquiat as an adult

After reading the book, I also looked for more information about Jean-Michel Basquiat myself. I realised he was a really big deal in the art world. In 2017, one of his paintings sold for over $110 million (not that money is what matters in art but…that is a lot!). I realised that the book doesn’t really address the issues Basquiat faced as a black star in a predominantly white art world in the 1980s or get into much about Basquiat’s adult life and early death at age 27 from an overdose. But maybe addressing the challenges in the artist’s life weren’t really the author’s objective?

There are many books about struggles faced by the Black community, and those are important struggles for all children to learn about. But we also need books for kids that celebrate the accomplishments of members of the Black community and encourage our children to dream big. This book is about the passion of a young Black child who knew that he just had to be an artist and had the confidence and drive to realise his dream. It is also a testimony to the importance of parents in supporting their children’s dreams, with his mother being a key figure throughout the book. Reading it made me excited to see where my daughter’s passion for art leads her. What more could you ask for in a book?

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