In his twenty-year career, Mr. Steptoe illustrated sixteen picture books, twelve of which he also wrote. The American Library Association named two of his books Caldecott Honor Books, a prestigious award for children's book illustration: THE STORY OF JUMPING MOUSE in 1985 and MUFARO'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS in 1988. Mr. Steptoe twice received the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, for MOTHER CROCODILE (text by Rosa Guy) in 1982, and for MUFARO'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS in 1988.

While all of Mr. Steptoe's work deals with aspects of the African American experience, MUFARO'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS was acknowledged by reviewers and critics as a breakthrough. Based on an African tale recorded in the 19th century, it required Mr. Steptoe for the first time to research African history and culture, awakening his pride in his African ancestry. Mr. Steptoe hoped that his books would lead children, especially African American children, to feel pride in their origins and in who they are. "I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people," he said, accepting the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Illustration, "I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from."

Mr. Steptoe frequently spoke to audiences of children and adults about his work. He was the 1989 winner of the Milner Award, voted by Atlanta schoolchildren for their favorite author.

John Steptoe died on August 28, 1989 at Saint Luke's Hospital in Manhattan, following a long illness. He was 38 years old and lived in Brooklyn. Mr. Steptoe was among the handful of African American artists who have made a career in children's books.