Mitch Horowitz: How Stevie by John Steptoe shaped my life

Mitch writes …

Mitch Horowitz with the book StevieIllustrator and writer John Steptoe produced Stevie in 1969 when he was 19 years old. When I discovered the slender volume at my neighborhood library in Queens at age 7, it changed everything for me. Stevie awakened me to the emotional experience of reading.

In a narrative of fewer than a thousand words, Stevie possesses more poignancy than most novels. It tells the story of two inner-city boys, Stevie and Robert, whose lives are thrown together when the younger Stevie is left in the care of Robert’s household. Stevie’s mother must work around the clock, perhaps as a domestic maid, and can see him only on weekends. Robert, our narrator, spends most of the book complaining about “Little Stevie” messing up his room, breaking his toys, and getting him in trouble.

One day, however, Stevie’s parents arrive to say they are moving away with him. Robert wakes up the next morning, fixes two bowls of cornflakes, and gets ready to settle in to watch cartoons with Stevie. Then he realizes despondently that the other bowl isn’t needed–Stevie is gone.

The book shows how loss often takes us by surprise. It’s a sad irony given how much time we spend complaining about others. I liked the author’s soft-spoken realism. Stevie first comes to live with Robert, and then is taken away from him, because Stevie’s parents are pressed to earn a living. Steptoe wrote Stevie in the idiom of young African-American boys: “But why I gotta take him everywhere I go?” Some readers objected to that. I loved it. As a kid I recognized it as real.

Steptoe worked and died at a young age–he passed away in 1989, just before his 39th birthday. In his author photograph on the original jacket he looks just a few years older than his own characters. After many years of my rereading the book–I share it today with my sons–I still feel the emotions of Robert’s surprise when he realizes that Stevie is no longer there.

MITCH HOROWITZ is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin. He is the author of Occult America, which received the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award—and also One Simple Idea, about America’s positive-thinking movement. He is writing a history of the positive thinking movement, forthcoming from Crown. Visit him at: www.mitchhorowitz.com

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