Jerry Craft on Being "The New Kid"

The author's new graphic novel, about a black student enrolling in a predominantly white private school, tells powerful truths about racism and alienation with humor and heart.

Author Jerry Craft
Photo by Hollis King

Scores of authors have written about being the new kid at school, but few have done it as effectively, or as sensitively, as Jerry Craft. His graphic novel New Kid (HarperCollins, Feb. 2019; Gr 4-7) follows middle schooler Jordan Banks, who has a rude awakening when he enrolls at the wealthy, predominantly white Riverdale Academy. Teachers view black students like Jordan with a mixture of hostility and condescension, confusing him with his friend Drew and assuming both boys are on financial aid.

Though the book takes on tough issues, Craft didn’t want to write a depressing story. He kept the laughs coming with offbeat characters and Jordan’s hilarious yet spot-on commentary in his sketchbook.

Blending humor and insight comes easy to Craft, who has explored diabetes and AIDS in his syndicated comic strip Mama’s Boyz. “Somewhere along the line, I became the guy who turned serious messages into palatable things.”

Craft was inspired by Schoolhouse Rock and Fat Albert, entertaining programs that also offered lessons. And New Kid oozes pop culture references: Straight Outta Compton, Fight Club, Eat Pray Love, and more. “When I took my sons to see Shrek, I was laughing hysterically,” says Craft. “So I wanted something that an adult could find equally as funny.”

Like Jordan, Craft lived in Washington Heights and experienced culture shock when he began attending a private school, whereas his children have gone to private school for most of their lives. He drew from both his and his sons’ experiences, and his children’s input was invaluable. “They read every version,” he says. “I relied on their feedback to make it authentic.”

Book cover for New Kid by Jerry CraftNew Kid is the book Craft wishes his younger self and his children had had. He was a reluctant reader as a child, while his sons devoured series like Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson.” But they rarely found books about black protagonists who mirrored their own lives.

On school visits, Craft notices that many of the children’s books featuring African Americans are set in the past—and don’t inspire the kind of fervor as “Wimpy Kid.” “A lot of the historical fiction, even though it’s very important, you read it once, you do your book report, and you’re done. You don’t pretend to be Frederick Douglass,” says Craft.

And his sons didn’t connect with novels about African American boys eking out bleak existences in poor neighborhoods—a far cry from the worlds of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Craft cleverly critiques this difference in New Kid, when Miss Brickner, a white librarian, gives a white student an exciting fantasy but hands a black student, Maury, The Mean Streets of South Uptown. She gushes about how much he’ll relate to its fatherless, low-income protagonist, but a bemused Maury is quick to point out that his dad is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

“Lots of times, kids of color get painted with a broad brush,” Craft says. Indeed, many black authors he knows have been advised to depict characters who don’t have fathers, because that’s what white editors and publishers see as authentic. But Jordan has strong bonds with both his dad and his grandfather. “I wanted to almost overcompensate,” Craft notes.

Craft has also observed that many authors seem reluctant to give black characters lighthearted stories. He almost fell into that trap, writing about a teacher who unfairly punishes Jordan’s friend Drew while letting their white classmate off the hook. But Craft’s sons begged him to give the scene an upbeat resolution. “I guess I owe my sons some pizza for that,” he says. “I like it better that nothing bad did happen.”

Nuanced characterization also makes New Kid a standout. “I didn’t want it to be like all the black kids are great, all the white kids are bad, because that’s not life,” says Craft. Thus, Jordan connects much more with Liam, who’s white, than with Maury. And Jordan and Drew talk about more than their feelings of alienation—they have fun debates about superheroes, too.

New Kid's lessons about race and privilege aren’t just for young people. Educators have much to learn from Jordan’s story. On one school visit, Craft arrived ready to talk to the students, only for a white teacher to assume he was there to there to fix the copier. And African American teachers have told Craft that their white colleagues still get their names wrong, even after years of working at a school.

He hopes that the teachable moments in the book will push adult readers to reconsider their own biases. “Take that extra second. Learn someone’s name. Have a conversation. Look them in the eye.”

Author Image
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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