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Graphic novelist Craft speaks about his path to traditional publishing and how he navigates conversations about race in comics form.
Since 1997, Jerry Craft has been self-publishing his work, which includes Mama’s Boyz, a comic about two African American boys being raised by their mother, and The Offenders, cowritten with his two sons, which offers a superpowered take on bullying. But New Kid, a graphic novel published by HarperCollins, is poised to bring his social-justice-centered work to a greatly expanded readership. The story of Jordan Banks, an African American student new to a predominantly white private school, New Kid depicts the experience of countless kids of color. Told with humanity, humor, and accessibility, it offers a sense of understanding that middle-school readers, not to mention everyone else, urgently need. And, it turns out, Craft was just the man to give it to us.KARP: New Kid deals with a serious subject, but its style and tone are surprising. CRAFT: Race is such a volatile talking point these days that the book needed humor and those kinds of whimsical illustrations—where anything could happen, like the old Warner Bros. cartoons. If a character is seen as an “Oreo,” I literally drew the kid as an Oreo. If I didn’t set up that kind of universe, it could easily be seen as a negative book, which is the last thing I wanted.KARP: You could have kept the book tied to Jordan’s point of view, but you make it very clear that every person has a burden to bear. CRAFT: I didn’t want to conform to stereotypes of clear-cut heroes and villains. When I was growing up, James Spader was the rich kid in all of the Molly Ringwald movies, and he was so arrogant—you just looked at him and instantly did not like him. I wanted to add characters that had nuance, like Liam, who’s very wealthy, and also really nice and is actually embarrassed by his family’s wealth. When Jordan goes over to his house for the first time, he’s like, “Whoa, you’re someone I thought has everything,” but it turns out that even Liam feels isolated. People, not just kids, but everyone, have so much in common with each other. It’s not just that one person is right and the other person is wrong.KARP: Jordan’s parents very poignantly argue about the value of their son learning the rules so he can “play the game,” though at the cost of feeling like an outsider. How do schools figure into this, and what can they do about it? CRAFT: In ninth grade, I went from an all-black school to Fieldston, a nearly all-white school in Riverdale, New York. So I saw it firsthand as a student. And then when I had kids, I sent them to a private school in New Canaan, Connecticut, and saw it from a parent’s perspective. The first time one of my kids even mentioned race was maybe first grade or kindergarten. There were two kids who had the same name, but one was black and one was white, so the others started calling them White Billy and Black Billy. That might have been an innocent thing because that’s just kids trying to differentiate between the two. But that was the first time I was like, oh, OK. Interesting.When schools cover slavery and civil rights, they need to teach sensitivity about it. Otherwise, you get kids who suddenly have this power and don’t know that it’s insensitive. So they’ll say, “You have to get on the back of the bus when we go home today.” Or “You have to go to the back of the lunchroom line because you’re black and we’re white.”This book is definitely for kids, but I wanted to also reach out to teachers, to show them how much power they have. I wanted to show the parents they need to be aware of what their kids’ school situation is like. When my parents put me in Fieldston, they just thought I would be fine. I don’t even remember having conversations like, “How are you? What’s it like going from an all-black school to a predominantly white school?” or discussing having kids drive up in Rolls-Royces or Bentleys while I’m taking public transportation.Schools have to actually ask the people who are living this experience and then just listen to them. I don’t know if schools realize sometimes when they have black faculty members, even just one or two, how important those teachers are to kids of color. I remember going into Mr. Gooden’s office, who was the black teacher in my high school, and there’d be six other kids in there. It was almost therapy in a sense because our guidance counselor really had no clue how to properly guide us. And I saw it at my kids’ school in New Canaan, where the black teachers did so much beyond their regular jobs: emotional nurturing, with the understanding that, as well-intentioned as some teachers can be, if you don’t have that experience, you’re just not able to connect in the same way.KARP: Jordan’s sketchbook figures prominently in New Kid. What can a creative outlet do for kids in Jordan’s position?CRAFT: It’s really sad that so many school art programs have been canceled. You know, they’ll still have their football team and their baseball team, but they’ll get rid of music and art. For a lot of kids, especially those who have an artistic soul, art allows them to show that they’re really good at something. Without it, it’s just, “I’m not good at math,” “I’m not good at science.” You take that sense of pride away from them. Why is being a musician or a dancer or an artist less of an achievement than being good at math or English or science?I really can’t stress enough the importance of being able to sit down and gather your thoughts into a cartoon. I used to make my own comic books. I have one I made in sixth grade that I show to kids when I do school visits, so they can see the gradual process. They say, “Well, I can’t draw Spider-Man.” I say, “Well, I couldn’t draw Spider-Man either when I was your age. I started with stick figures.” So many of my friends who are artists and writers talk about being in the lower-tier class, or the special-ed group, and now they’re some of the most successful graduates their schools have ever had.KARP: Why tell this story in comics form?CRAFT: As a kid, I was what they now call a reluctant reader. I read Marvel Comics, and like so many of my friends, that was my first vocabulary lesson, especially when every superhero’s name had an adjective before it: the Uncanny X-Men, the Spectacular Spider-Man, the Macabre Man-Thing. And I had to look those words up. But the teachers would confiscate any comics that they saw, because they were supposedly rotting our brains. By the end of the year, the teachers had more comics in their desks than the kids had in their collections.So, by doing it as a graphic novel, I thought it would have the widest appeal. I wanted to make it accessible. I didn’t want to scare kids off with 200 pages of text. I wanted to bring them in. I put a lot of stuff in backgrounds and details that might even inspire a second read.KARP: What recent comics or graphic novels had an influence on New Kid?CRAFT: David Small’s Stitches (2009). When I read that, I was just stunned at how much emotion you could put into a graphic novel. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006), because that dealt with being an outsider due to race. Jamar Nicholas’s LEON: Protector of the Playground (2017) is just plain fun. I went to the National Book Festival a few years ago and saw Raina Telgemeier and the impact that she had on her fans, who just came running in with copies of her books. I thought, that’s what I want to aspire to, to be able to reach kids like that and be able to teach them like that.I grew up with Fat Albert and Schoolhouse Rock, so everything that I watched had some kind of a learning component to it. I like that, so I always try to create stories that have a teaching component, whether it’s about family values or anti-bullying or respect.KARP: What’s your diversity experience been like working in children’s literature?CRAFT: My comic strip Mama’s Boyz used to be distributed by King Features. I didn’t see any book around like it, that featured African American or Latino kids as the protagonists. Just regular kids, not in a gang or not a throwback to civil rights or escaping from a plantation. So I sent it out to different publishers, and I got one rejection letter after another. One letter had a handwritten note at the bottom. I figured it was going to be a “keep it up” message, something inspirational. And it was basically, “We’re not interested in this Good Times sitcom-type humor.”It was so offensive. I decided then and there that mainstream publishing would never have a place for me. So I went to the library, and I read up on how to publish my own book.In 1997, I published Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie, and basically, from 1997 to 2014, I either published my own work or I helped other people to publish. Then, out of the blue one day, I got an email asking if I wanted to illustrate a book for Scholastic. That was The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, and it made me think, maybe things are changing a little bit.So I shopped New Kid, and HarperCollins really loved it. The scary part was, I feared the staff were going to want me to get rid of the dad, or add a gang, or change the overall tone of my story. But that horrific email never came. I loved my editor and his feedback because it let me know that he really understood what I was trying to do.KARP: Ideally, what would you like an African American middle-school reader to take away from New Kid?CRAFT: When my kids were in middle school, Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out, and most kids carried that book around. They had their pencils, their notebooks, and a copy of Wimpy Kid. But my kids never really had books with characters who looked like them that they could carry around like that. When I was growing up, you’d go to the movies, and any kid who looked like me, who had aspirations of going to college and making himself better, you knew at some point, something horrible would happen to him. Our stories always ended in tragedy. I just want a kid to read this and be able to relax. Read it and laugh and go, “Wow, I made it to the last page and no one died and there was no heartbreak, and I’m going to read this again now that I know I can relax.” Then be proud to give it to their friends—white, black, Latino. I just wanted to humanize the characters because I feel like so much of what happens in society today is because people of color aren’t seen to possess the same humanity as others. So, when bad stuff happens, it’s no big deal. By having these kids, white kids as well, know what it’s like to be Jordan, or to be Drew, or to be Alexandra, I think that counts as much as anything for humanizing us and putting everyone on the path to becoming more caring adults.Sampling CraftMama’s Boyz: In Living Color! 2017. Mama’s Boyz Inc., $21.95 (9780979613289). Gr. 4–12.New Kid. Feb. 2019. Harper, $12.99 (9780062691194). Gr. 4–7.The Offenders. With Jaylen Craft and Aren Craft. 2013. Mama’s Boyz Inc, $21.95 (9780979613272). Gr. 5–8.The Zero Degree Zombie Zone. By Patrik Henry Bass. 2014. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780545132107). Gr. 2–4.Jesse Karp is a librarian at LREI, an independent school in New York City. He is the author of the young adult novels Those That Wake (2011) and What We Become (2013) and the nonfiction title Graphic Novels in Your School Library (2011). He is a regular reviewer for Booklist.
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