“This Was a Book I Needed To Write” | Jarrett J. Krosoczka On “Hey, Kiddo”

The author/illustrator of the “Lunch Lady” and “Jedi Academy” series opens up about his graphic novel memoir.

Photo by Derek Fowles

Write what you know, they say. It took Jarrett J. Krosoczka years to follow that advice, but the results are worth the wait. While his books have long been reader favorites, Hey, Kiddo (Scholastic, Oct. 9, 2018; Gr 7 Up) reveals the author's maturity and depth. Working up the courage to revisit a painful childhood and adolescence wasn’t easy for Krosoczka. In a phone interview, he told SLJ that he’s been thinking about penning a graphic memoir for years, but “every time I went to write the book, I would stop.”

Then, in a 2012 TED Talk about his development as an artist, Krosoczka opened up about his early years. For much of his childhood, his mother, Leslie, was incarcerated because of her heroin use, so his maternal grandparents stepped in to care for him. He didn’t know who his father was until he was in high school. The video went viral, and he realized that this “was a book I needed to write.”

And it was a story that demanded much of him. Krosoczka opted not to use a colorist on Hey, Kiddo; the work was so intimate that he wanted to be the only one shaping the art. That decision, as well as his choice to do much of the work by hand, made producing the book, already longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award , time-consuming. He also spent more effort than usual perfecting early sketches. “I remember my wife looking over my shoulder wondering why I was spending so much time,” he adds. His art was then scanned in digitally, printed, and placed on a light board, where he did further work by hand—a process he repeated several times.

The pursuit of perfection is familiar to all artists, but Krosoczka took it to the extreme, even asking his editor if he could redo the clouds on an outdoor scene right before the book went to print. “I knew this was my one and only chance to tell this story, and I wanted to get it right.”

His memoir, aimed at young adults, is worlds away from his children’s books. Gone are the cheerfully frenetic action sequences and the bright color schemes of the “Lunch Lady” and “Jedi Academy” series. “I wanted the images to flow into one another,” explains Krosoczka.

The medium was crucial, too. There’s “lots of unpredictability that happens when you’re combining ink and water,” and he wanted that emotion to bleed into the art.

And the muted, sepialike palette conveys a truth that many teens grapple with: “Life isn’t black and white but also varying shades of gray.” There are no heroes or villains here, tempting as that might have been. A scene where a five-year-old Jarrett tags along while his mother shoplifts may turn readers against Leslie, but the inclusion of the letters she sends him from prison, encouraging his passion for art, imbues her with warmth. And though teenage Jarrett viewed his mother with skepticism and resentment, as an adult Krosoczka looked at her with newfound sympathy. “When I became a father myself, I thought about how difficult that must have been for my mother to lose custody of her kid.”

Krosoczka also regards his younger self with tenderness now that he has children the same age as he was when he was confronting harsh realities. “For me it was just life, and it’s a memory I’ve lived with my whole life, but then when you project those circumstances on a kid you know, you think ‘That’s terrible.’”

Krosoczka’s grandparents, too, emerge clearly. Having endured World War II and raised five of their own children, Joe and Shirley were loving but tough. Neither minced words, and Shirley’s dismissal of teenage Jarrett’s anniversary gift, a portrait of his grandparents, will have readers wincing. Snarling fights between the two were regular occurrences—“I came to know later that they were heading toward a divorce before they took me in,” notes Krosoczka. But the images of the couple comforting young Jarrett through countless nightmares and tears say it all.

Krosoczka cites many graphic memoirs as influential, including Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series “American Splendor.” ”The thought that a comic could be about everyday life and not about a superhero or a big action story really shifted my perspective,” he says. Though misanthrope Pekar’s work is bleaker than Hey Kiddo, both capture the drama of the quotidian. Indeed, Krosoczka’s eye for detail makes his book so personal. He reproduces the kitschy pineapple wallpaper of his grandparents’ home in between chapters and waxes rhapsodic about a teddy bear, one of his only gifts from his mother. And his use of his own childhood and adolescent artwork give the story an added dimension—that of a budding artist coming into his own.

Telling his story was at times overwhelming. Adopting the motto “Write like you don’t give a fuck” freed Krosoczka from his fears of alienating readers. But now that the book is complete, the author/illustrator is eager to see it reach kids in similar situations. He believes the story will also resonate with readers who have no experience with addiction. “Hopefully it will give them a better understanding...and perhaps some empathy.”

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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