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My mother and father used to give me pencils and paper all

the time, being that they were artists, art was always around.




Interview with Javaka Steptoe

Author and Illustrator of The Jones Family Express

By Yvonne Terry


Yvonne: What inspired your writing of The Jones Family Express

Javaka: The idea for the story came from my grandmother. She had a triple bypass operation and was not able to get around much because she was confined to a wheelchair. So a friend of mine that traveled for work decided to send her postcards from the different places she went. My grandmother liked it a lot. I also like traveling and think that learning about the world is something that we should all aspire to do. I see people today who don't leave their block, their neighborhood, or don't leave Brooklyn. I just wanted to do something to inspire people to see the world.

Yvonne: Based on some of your work, one can tell that the family theme is important to you. Is this true? Why?

Javaka: Family is important to me. Family decides so much about whom we are going to be and how we feel about ourselves. I think that when a lot of kids grow up, they think, "my family is not like this family or that family," and I just wanted to share parts of my life and show that there is no normal. Everybody's family has imperfections and it doesn't take away from you as a person or what you can accomplish. I wanted people to look at the bright side of their family.

Yvonne: Who are some of the people who influenced your life and work?

Javaka: Definitely, my father and mother, who were both artists. They are probably the biggest influences of my artwork. Other inspiration comes from my environment. It can be anything from spray paint on the wall to a piece in a museum or something I see in a magazine. In essence I am inspired by the world.

Other artists that inspire me include Romare Beardon, Betty Sarr, and Picasso.

Yvonne: My students are familiar with some of your father's books. What is alike and what is different about your writing styles?

Javaka: That's a hard question because I don't have as much written work as my father to make a good comparison. I could say that the similarity is that we use experiences from our lives to create stories and we project our values in our art and writing. What's different is that I probably have a little more humor to my work. I could be wrong but offhand I would say I have a little more quirky personality in my stories.

Yvonne: Many of my students love to draw, did you find yourself drawing all the time as a young student?

Javaka: Yes, I found myself drawing all the time. I used to create my own comic strips and superheroes. I love watching and drawing cartoons too.

Yvonne: My students want to know how old you were when you first started to draw?

Javaka: I really don't remember. I have always been drawing. I always remembered being interested in drawing. My mother and father used to give me pencils and paper all the time, being that they were artists, art was always around. Plus we didn't have television, so I had to be creative.

Yvonne: Did you know when you were very young that you would be an illustrator?

Javaka: I knew it was a possibility. I had artistic ability. Many people would ask me because they knew I could draw and they knew my father was an illustrator. It definitely doesn't surprise me that I became an illustrator.

Yvonne: Your illustrations are alive and vivid, what makes them different?

Javaka: The way I illustrate a book is different because I look at every book as an experiment. I don't have one type of style to put everything into. My approach is more fine art and I am growing as an artist. I am trying new techniques, approaches, and am learning as I go along. Maybe at the end of the day, there will be a style that is considered "Javakaesque," but right now I am having fun with it.

Yvonne: How did you develop your talent? What schools did you attend to enhance your skills?

Javaka: I attended my home, and the reason why I say that is because my father and mother had the most influence on me. I could go to them and say, " how do you draw a hand" or how do you draw a face?" They definitely were my number one teachers. Then after that, I did after-school programs, attended The Children's Art Carnival, and I attended the high school of art design. I got my bachelor's degree from Cooper Union College.

Yvonne: What advice would you give to a young person interested in becoming an illustrator or a writer?

Javaka: Make sure that it is something that you love to do. I say that because when you do something out of love, you have a different attitude about it. Art is not a field that is easy to go into. As an illustrator, I have to work with a lot of different people and personalities. I don't get a steady paycheck every week or every two weeks. Some people might see the occupation as scary, but for me, I know I need to be an artist.  It doesn't make sense for me to do anything else, because art is something I love doing.

Yvonne: When did you become interested in becoming a writer?

Javaka: I always wrote, but I was never a big writer. Most of my writing was used to support my artwork, for example when I made comic books. As an illustrator I see a lot of wonderful stories, but I also have stories of my own that are not being told. I feel that as a children's book creator I have a certain responsibility to get across certain ideas and I can't just sit and wait for someone else to write it in order for me to speak about it.

Yvonne: You seem to like children, what other projects are in the works for you?

Javaka: I am finishing the illustrations for a book entitled, "A Hot Day On Abbott Avenue," which is about two girls who learn about what it means to share. It was written by Karen English.

Yvonne: I have noticed that more and more African-American students are developing a love for reading. Do you have any ideas about how we can further encourage a love for reading in our youth?

Javaka: I think that parents need to buy books. I know that books can be expensive, but we need to invest. We buy things like X-boxes, but a favorite book can last just as long and even longer. We need to encourage kids and let them know that being a writer or illustrator or someone who uses words is important too. We have to let our children know that there is value in proper English and the ability to write. Parents need to read to their kids. The library is always an option. Parents can lead by example by reading themselves. Also teachers and parents can create projects that involve reading and writing that are fun. I think that reading, writing, and art can be incorporated into any project from math to science.

Yvonne: At Waverly Elementary School, we encourage writing, beginning in pre-kindergarten. Students carry writer's notebooks to write down seed ideas that come to them throughout the day. How long did you work on The Jones Family Express? Did you follow a writing process over a period of time?

Javaka: The Jones Family Express took me 3-4 years to complete, but that was because I had four different editors. It was a bit frustrating and that is when your love for what you do comes in. Each time there was a new editor, there was a new direction, and so for this book, getting it finished was not an easy process. But most of the time, authors have one editor that lasts throughout from start to finish and the process doesn't take nearly as long. In book publishing sometimes projects get tossed to the side.

I learned a lot from the process of writing. Writing children's books isn't as easy as it seems. You have to say a lot but you have to say it in a few words. You have to make sure that it is being understood by your audience. It is a group project. You are working with an editor and art directors who are looking at your work giving you their opinions and suggestions. You have to be open to change and their ideas, but you must always stand up for what you believe in.    

Yvonne: Are you married? Do you have children.

Javaka: No, I am not married and I do not have children.

Yvonne: We the ChickenBones: A Journal staff would like to thank you for this interview. We wish you much success in the future.

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Other Reviews

The Jones Family Express

Written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe.

In this wonderful and engaging story about a young boy's relationship with his Aunt Carolyn, the reader gets a delightful insight into the Black Family Reunion. Many adults and students will be able to relate to the love and fellowship that the family members share. Love is brilliantly communicated as each unique character is introduced. Steven's love for Aunt Carolyn and the entire Jones family is evidenced by the special gift that he gives Aunt Carolyn at the end of the story. Children and adults alike will be impressed with the large, colorful and imaginative illustrations. Bravo!Yvonne M. Terry, Education Reviewer, ChickenBones: A Journal


This book is wonderful. The illustrations are brilliantly done and help to move the story along incredibly well. My students identified with every bit of it and remained captivated from start to finish. The story is real and humorous enough for our children. I hope we can have it in our school library.Patricia Njenga, 4th Grade Teacher, Waverly Elementary School (Baltimore, Maryland)


I think that this is a great book. The pictures are big and colorful. I like books that have a lot of pictures. I like how they had the post cards, fake pictures, and real pictures. I hope we can get this book.La Shanna Alston, Grade 4, Waverly Elementary School (Baltimore, Maryland)


I really enjoyed the book, The Jones Family Express because it reminds me of my family. My family members act the same way as the characters in this story. This story could be about a real family. The pictures are awesome. Will this book be in our library?Mercedes Thomas, Grade 5, Waverly Elementary School (Baltimore, Maryland)


I really like this book The Jones Family Express is a good book. I think that when Steven gets to go with his aunt he will be very happy. I liked the family reunionBrittany Henderson, Grade 4, Waverly Elementary School (Baltimore, Maryland)


I like all parts of this story. I especially like when he made the train for his aunt. It has nice pictures too!Kory Walters, Grade 4, Waverly Elementary School (Baltimore, Maryland)


I like this book a lot. It was funny because Uncle Charles has an Afro. I like Ms. Ruby's hair and the way she talks. This is a good book. Thank you Mr. Steptoe for writing this book.Christopher Witherspoon, Grade 5, Waverly Elementary School (Baltimore, Maryland)


Javaka Steptoe is an eclectic young artist, designer, and illustrator, building a national reputation as an outstanding contributor to the genre of children's literature. His debut work, In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African American Celebrating Fathers, earned him the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a nomination for Outstanding Children's Literature Work at the 1998 NAACP Image Awards, a finalist ranking for the Bluebonnet Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and countless other honors.

His most recent works, Do you Know What I'll Do authored by Carlotte Zolotow and A Pocketful of Poems authored by Nikki Grimes, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and the ALA Booklist.

Once a model and inspiration for his late father, award winning author/illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe has established himself as an outstanding illustrator in his own right. Utilizing everyday objects, from aluminum plates to pocket lint, and sometimes illustrating with a jigsaw and paint, he delivers reflective and thoughtful collage creations filled with vitality, playful energy, and strength. For Steptoe, "collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, taking the scraps of life and transforming in their own lives."

As both an artist and educator, he challenges traditional notions of Black art, emphasizing the richness of our collective past through his use of family as a recurring theme and centerpiece. Steptoe explains, "I want my audience no matter what their background, to be able to enter into my world and make connections with comparable experiences in their own lives.

Having earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Steptoe is very committed to children's education, making appearances at various schools libraries, museums, and conferences across the country, including the American Library Association, the International Association, and Reading Is Fundamental, Inc.

Javaka Steptoe currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and may be contacted for school visits or artist/author talks via fax at 718-363-2361, or, or

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Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.”

Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.

Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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update 1 August 2012




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Related files:  The Jones Family Express  Interview with Javaka Steptoe