(1950–1989), artist, author, and illustrator of children's books.
Born on 14 September 1950 and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, John Lewis Steptoe attended the New York School of Design and an afternoon art program sponsored by the Harlem Youth Opportunity Act from 1964 to 1967. In 1968, Steptoe was recruited as a senior in high school by John Torres to attend an eight-week summer program for minority artists at Vermont Academy. There Steptoe met Philip Dubois, who provided him with a place to work at the end of the summer session. While he was a student at Vermont Academy, Steptoe wrote and illustrated his first novel, Stevie. Published by Harper in 1969 and reprinted in Life, Stevie vaulted the nineteen-year-old Steptoe into the limelight. Written by an inner-city African American teenager and directed at inner-city African American youth, Stevie was lauded by the critics for its appeal to white as well as black audiences. Steptoe's use of inner-city dialect and his depiction of an urban setting targeted an audience previously ignored by children's book publishers: urban African American youth. What made Stevie so popular, however, was Steptoe's choice of subject matter. His tale of jealousy and reconciliation addressed a universal theme to which readers of all colors could relate.
Throughout his prolific career, Steptoe continued to write and illustrate books that dealt with experiences, issues, and concerns in the African American community. His works include Uptown (1970), Train Ride (1971), Birthday(1972), My Special Best Words (1974), Marcia (1976), Daddy Is a Monster … Sometimes (1980), Jeffrey Bear Cleans Up His Act (1983), The Story of Jumping Mouse: A Native American Legend (1984), Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale (1987), and Baby Says (1988).
Steptoe also used his considerable artistic talents to collaborate with other authors. His illustration credits include All Us Come Cross the Water (with Lucille Clifton, 1972), She Come Bringing Me that Little Baby Girl (with Eloise Greenfield, 1974), OUTside/INside Poems (with Arnold Adoff, 1981), Mother Crocodile=Maman Caiman (by Birago Diop, translated and adapted by Rosa Guy, 1981), and All the Colors of the Race: Poems (with Arnold Adoff, 1982).
Steptoe won numerous awards for his work, including the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators (in 1970 for Stevie), the Irma Simonton Black Award from Bank Street College of Education in New York City (with Eloise Greenfield in 1975 for She Come Bringing Me that Little Baby Girl), the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (in 1978 for Stevie), the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration (in 1982 for Mother Crocodile=Maman Caiman and in 1988 for Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters), the Caldecott Honor Medal (in 1985 for The Story of Jumping Mouse: A Native American Legend and in 1988 for Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters), and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Illustration (in 1987 for Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters).
In addition to Stevie, Steptoe's most well-known work is Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale. A retelling of the Cinderella story set in ancient Africa with vivid full-color paintings and fully realized characters, which Steptoe modeled on members of his family, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters embodies Steptoe's conviction that ancient African culture bore no resemblance to the stereotypical view of Africa as a Dark Continent inhabited by savages. During the two and a half years it took him to write and illustrate the book, Steptoe consulted anthropological studies that detailed the technological sophistication of the ruins of Zimbabwe. In Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Steptoe captures the beauty of Africa and Africans while retelling a tale of sibling rivalry found in all cultures. His choice of such a universal theme echoed the approach he took with Stevie and with other works throughout his career.