- An Interview with John Steptoe*
RN: How did you come to write Stevie?
JS: Well, basically, I was asked. A few weeks after I came to Harper's, I met Ursula Nordstrom and she asked me if I wanted to write a book. I was about 16 years old and I said, Sure.
GD: How did you get to Harper's in the first place?
JS: I was feeling strange in school and in my life. I felt like the odd man out —which is not so different from what I feel now, except that now I understand it better. But when you're young and feeling disconnected from people, you begin to feel crazy. I felt cramped in school, not because the teachers were bad but because I wanted to do something else, which was paint. I was staying home from school and feeling bad about myself, so I finally decided to leave. I put together a portfolio and asked some people for advice. One teacher I knew suggested Harper's, so that's where I went. All of this was during the '60s and publishing houses were ready to work with black folks on account of we were getting real uppity. I am not downplaying my appreciation for Ursula. I love her and am very grateful for what she did for me, but I also have to notice that publishers right now aren't buying a lot of work by black artists. There are very few blacks working in picture books.
So that is how I got started. Then my perceptions of the way things were started to become distorted. I would watch TV and almost forget that I was black. I didn't understand politically what was happening. I was 18 years old, from Bedford-Stuyvesant, and people started asking me political questions, and I had no idea what was going on. Suddenly [End Page 122] people were calling me Mr. Steptoe and asking me for my autograph, and I had large sums of money that I hid under my bed or spent in some crazy way. I got treated like an honorary white man and I loved it. Sometimes I would borrow a dollar for subway fare to get to a French restaurant where an editor would spend $40 a person on lunch and then I would go back to Bedford-Stuyvesant and I was just another nigger on the block. Or I would go up to a receptionist in an office and she would tell me that the mailroom was downstairs. But how would she know? Any other black male that she had seen was coming in to deliver messages. So it wasn't her fault. Those kinds of things still happen to me, and they keep me in touch with the reality of what is going on for black folks in this world. The black middle class is growing, which is good, but it is not the reality for most black people.
GD: So you wrote Stevie and it was a big success . . .
JS: Yes. It was reprinted in Life magazine —the only children's book ever printed in total.
RN: Why do you think that was?
JS: Because at that particular point society was very anxious to say to black folks, we're doing something.
GD: And you were the only black author writing?
JS: For children, yes. Now we have Tom Feelings and Leo and Diane Dillon. But there are not many. I intend to make the best of the situation I am in, but I won't turn around and forget that the world and the industry I'm in are racist and sexist. I'm sure most of the people you work with are female. Most librarians are. And that reflects the society we are living in. So that's not welcoming to me or people like me. If our industry was waiting with open arms to receive people like me, there would be a lot more black folks and males working in it.
GD: You said that after Stevie you dropped out for awhile. What happened?
JS: I didn't really understand what...