Creator Spotlight with Children’s Book Author/Illustrator Javaka Steptoe
This week we’d like to introduce you to children’s book author and illustrator Javaka Steptoe.
What was the inspiration behind becoming a creator? What do you enjoy most about the creative process?
I have always been a creator and don’t remember a time when I was not. Where it came from and how it was developed is because of my parents. My mother Stephanie Douglas—a teacher, painter, and fine artist—and my father John Steptoe—renowned children’s book author/Illustrator—were both artists. So, there was always pencils, paper, crayons, etc. lying around the house. Because of that I cannot say when I created my first drawing. I can’t say if one of them handed me a crayon or I just grabbed something and started drawing. Art is something I’ve always done like breathing or eating. I don’t remember life otherwise.
From each parent I learned different lessons tied to the tenants of their trade. From my father I learned about children’s books—drawing children that look like children and not small adults, creating pictures that told stories, drawing the same character(s) from multiple angles expressing different types of actions, showing nuances of emotion in body language and facial features.
My mother was more fluid and experimental in her art. She used disparate mediums to create collages, paintings, and drawings. From her I learned more esoteric art lessons like color, abstraction, texture, fluidity, and dedication.
Can you take us through your creative process? How long does it take? Does everything you produce make money?
When I have an idea that I’m excited about, the first thing I do is research. I’m following a feeling of curiosity and excitement that might be about material, a perspective, a person, event, etc. If after my initial research I am still excited, I start brainstorming, do more research, and writing whatever thoughts stick out or the subject matter brings to mind. I’m doing these things because I’m trying to understand as much as possible about this curiosity. I have to look at it from as many directions as possible, explore the many ways it can be expressed, do additional research when necessary and put it in words. My goal is to capture its essence so that I can effectively communicate what I want to say.
Next I make sketches and write notes, make sketches from my notes, write notes about my sketches, to create a sketch I like the best. Then I make variations on that sketch. I think about colors, movement, composition, placement, sounds, emotions, etc. My sketches are not detailed because I know that I want to have the freedom to move things around as more information and ideas come along.
Then I choose materials. Materials are very important because they also help to tell the story. My material choices are about creating metaphors and connections for the viewer. They are shortcuts to help me say what I have to say in a simple way. So, I can’t just use any paper, pencil, or piece of wood. I look for objects that energize, solidify, and further my ideas, like ephemera adding backstory that connects to the viewers’ memories and emotions.
The last step is creating the physical art. That’s the easiest part. Everything has to feel fresh and in the moment (again that is why my sketches aren’t detailed). I am well practiced at putting elements together while working on the challenges that go along with using various materials. Hands, eyes, faces, and other delicate bits might fall into cracks, as I figure out how to combine incompatible surfaces or face some other challenge that may arise. I enjoy this type of challenge and let that be a part of the work. Using balance and control, I let things ‘be as they are’ and guide them to be what they need to be. The last part of my work can take a day, a week, or a month depending on the complexity of the project.
Of course, I have my initial ideas about the finished product when I start but sometimes, I have no idea where I’ll end up. The final piece is totally based on my reaction to the research. I am done when I feel there is nothing meaningful to add, and I am happy and satisfied with what I have created.
For the most part, my goal is to sell my work, but there are times when I just make and create because that’s what I’m feeling, and there is no money behind it.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about your line of work?
The biggest misconception about my line of work is that writing and illustrating children’s books is easy. I hear a lot of people say all you have to do is this… or that…, children like everything just draw anything and little kids will like it. New childrens book writers and illustrators will even fight me on the advice I give after having 20 years’ experience because they don’t want to do the work. Little kids don’t like everything. They are the most honest audience you’ll ever have and if they don’t like something, they’ll let you know. The best children’s books look easy and sound simple because the hard work was already put in. It takes a lot of time finding the right word to fit into a great sentence to make an excellent paragraph when telling a captivating story. Within your word choices, you must take into consideration vocabulary, rhythm, economy of words within possibly explaining complex ideas. I spend the time and energy when creating because I remember the sophisticated thoughts I had when I was younger. I also remember the excitement and fascination I feel when coming back to a story, song, or visual artwork at different times in my life and finding new things in it as time goes by.
When did you first become aware of copyright, and why?
As a children’s book author/illustrator who uses collage techniques, it is important to understand copyright law. I’m in no way saying I’m a lawyer but it’s helpful to know what images I can legally use (and not use) in my work.
As an executor of my father’s estate, knowledge of copyright law is essential because I have to periodically request rights and know when to confer with lawyers for copyright law clarifications and strategies. Copyright knowledge is the basis for making and understanding many publishing and related agreements. Knowledge of copyright law lets you know what you own, the rights you have as an owner, and how those rights protect your works.
I’m not sure how I first learned about copyright law. Maybe I became aware because of my father. He created children’s books and many times talked to my sister and I about his business or took us to meetings with his publishers and agents. But practically, I probably became aware of it when attending the High School Of Art and Design. While there, I attended many design and business of art classes. These classes inspired me to be an industrious kid forming many small business ventures where I created, designed and sold t-shirts and clothing. These ventures gave me a working understanding of copyright.
Have you experienced copyright infringement and, if so, how has it affected you personally and financially?
Copyright infringement is something that, unfortunately, happens frequently to many creators, including me. Usually, it is on a small scale, such as someone orchestrating a school play based on your book to raise money without asking permission or a local artist using your image as part of their work. Situations like that can be annoying but are usually done out of ignorance. It’s best to address such situations head on and let the infringing parties know that they must have permission to use your work.
Sometimes you will experience more nefarious instances of infringement. For example, if the infraction is committed by someone who is a professional in their field and knows the rules, but for some reason they think they can get away with not paying you. In these cases, a good instructive letter/negotiation is helpful but other times it’s necessary to work with a lawyer who is an expert in copyright and intellectual property.
The best thing that you can do is to be diligent, stay active online, and be proactive about protecting your work. Some of the specific advice I offer to fellow creators is to:
Set up google alerts so if a property of yours appears online you will receive a heads up.
Copyright any works before you share them online or on social media platforms.
Consult with a knowledgeable attorney if/when needed.
Understand your worth and the worth of your work and how you want it to be used.
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