Jerry Craft Breaks Barriers with Historic 2020 Newbery Win

The first graphic novel to take home the award, New Kid is the book that Craft wrote for his 10-year-old self, who rarely saw books with which he could identify.

Photo by Hollis King

Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid made history at the Youth Media Awards on Monday, becoming the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal as the "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" this year. As Craft thought about breaking the barrier for the format, he considered all those who came before him.

“When you think of such amazing books that have predated New Kid—American Born Chinese, Hey, Kiddo, Roller Girl, anything by Raina Telgemeier—when I started thinking about that, in context, then it was pretty amazing,” Craft said.

The call from the Newbery committee came at 6:42 a.m. When the phone rang again at 7:07 a.m., he was concerned. He looked and said to himself, “Philly’s calling again? Is this going to be like ‘Hey, sorry, but the winner’s Moonlight?’ ‘We meant Jerry Pinkney, not Jerry Craft.’”

The Newbery was still his. This call was the Coretta Scott King Award (CSK) committee. Craft also won the CSK Author Award.

“I did not see that coming at all,” he said.

Once the YMA ceremony was over and the news became public, Craft realized he would not be spending the day working on New Kid’s sequel, Class Act, as he had planned. He spent the morning and early afternoon fielding congratulatory messages from family and friends and his peers.

“It’s like two families,” he said. “There’s the graphic novel family that has been actually amazing. Then there’s the authors and illustrators of color, that family. The outreach from both of them has been pretty amazing.”

Cece Bell, author of El Deafo, sent an email. From Hey, Kiddo author Jarrett J. Krosoczka came a video of his family screaming in excitement in their car. Raina Telgemeier simply texted, “AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The messages kept coming from some of the biggest names in kid lit—Jason Reynolds, Nik Stone, and Elizabeth Acevedo. Then there was a phone call from Kwame Alexander.

 


Read: 'New Kid' Makes History as First Graphic Novel To Win Newbery; Caldecott Goes To 'The Undefeated'


 

“I’ve spoken to him in person and known him since we were both selling books out of the trunk of our car, but this is the first actual phone call,” said Craft. “I was so surprised, I thought it was Kwame Mbalia.”

When he finally realized it was Alexander, “a light shone through my window on the phone and the angels started singing,” he said laughing.

Craft hopes that having the first graphic novel break through and win the Newbery will help “legitimize” the format and convince skeptics of their value, but he also wants this book to show the possible path to success for stories with African American characters who “are not driven by misery.”

“There are very important books that talk about slavery and civil rights or police brutality or gang life, but I really wanted to add to their narrative by adding a boy who has a mom and a dad, a family who loves him, a support system, neighbors,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about anything bad happening, anyone meeting an unexpected demise. [It's] something a kid can just read and relax and be like, ‘Wow I actually feel good reading this. I actually laughed.’ That’s not something I ever had growing up.

“More than anything, I wanted to give 10-year-old Jerry Craft a book he could read and say was his own. That was probably the reason I was not a reader until I was an adult. The things I had to read in school couldn’t have been further from my life. Or if it was someone who looked like me, it couldn’t be further from the life I wanted to live when I got older.”

Ten-year-old Jerry Craft is getting a sequel, which follows the same characters in eighth grade. And Craft fans shouldn’t worry. He knows the Newbery will come with disruptive time commitments, but they won't delay Class Act. He plans to celebrate his historic win by working until 2 a.m. on the follow-up.

“I am making this a priority,” he said.


Read: Kadir Nelson on His 2020 Caldecott Win for 'The Undefeated'


 

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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kathleen whalin

Without taking anything away from the hard work of the committee and the artistry of the author, I really think a Newbery's text should be the primary focus. I think it's time for a separate Graphic Novel award which would both honor the Newbery's traditional criteria and the art of the graphic novel.

Posted : Feb 08, 2020 03:12


Robert Johnson

Congratulations, people need to see us as fully developed human beings. I live in a majority-Black middle class neighborhood in the community of Inglewood. Very rarely do you see stories written about this Black experience. Congratulations, and thank you. Looking forward to the next book.

Posted : Jan 28, 2020 05:06


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