Profile: John Steptoe (1950-1989)

John Steptoe was an author and illustrator for children’s books dealing with aspects of the African-American experience. He is best known for Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, which was acknowledged by literary critics as a breakthrough in African history and culture.

Early life

John Steptoe was born in Brooklyn, New York. He began drawing as a young child and received formal art training at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. He also attended the Vermont Academy, where he studied under the sculptor John Torres, and William Majors, a widely acclaimed painter.

Career

Steptoe began his first picture book, Stevie, when he was only 16 years old. Stevie was published three years later to outstanding critical praise. It received national attention when it appeared in its entirety in Life magazine, which commended it for being “a new kind of book for black children.”

Since his publication of Stevie, John Steptoe illustrated 15 more picture books, 10 of which he also wrote. The American Library Association named The Jumping Mouse in 1985 and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters in 1988 Caldecott Honor Books, a prestigious award for children’s book illustrations. Steptoe also received the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration for both Mother Crocodile (written by Rosa Guy) in 1982 and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. While all of Steptoe’s works deal with the African-American experience, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters was widely praised by reviewers and critics as a breakthrough in African history and culture. Based on an African tale from the 19th century, it required Steptoe to research his heritage giving him the chance to awaken his pride in his African ancestry. John Steptoe hoped that his books would lead African-American children to feel pride in their origins as well.

Death and legacy

John Steptoe died on August 28, 1989, at Saint Lukes Hospital in Manhattan of AIDS. He was 38 years old. At the time of his death, Steptoe was among the few African-American artists who made a career in children’s literature. Following his death, the American Library Association established the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, which is given to affirm new talent and excellence in writing and/or illustration.

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