Last month, author and illustrator Jerry Craft (BFA 1984 Media Arts) was awarded the Newbery Medal for outstanding contribution to children’s literature, for his graphic novel New Kid. A coming-of-age story, New Kid was born of Craft’s own experiences growing up in New York City. New Kid is the first graphic novel to receive the medal, which has been awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association) since 1922.
New Kid follows Jordan Banks, a 12-year-old who lives in Washington Heights and dreams of going to art school. Instead, his parents send him to a prestigious private academy where he is one of the few kids of color. With thoughtfulness, an eye for detail and a healthy dose of humor, Craft relates Jordan’s struggles and triumphs as the new kid in class.
Craft himself was a reluctant reader as a kid, obsessed with comic books and not much else. New Kid is the book he wishes he had when he was young: something young people can bond with, and something young kids of color — like his two sons, who provided crucial feedback on the novel — can see themselves in as well.
We checked in with Craft after his historic award.
New Kid draws on your experiences, your kids' experiences—is this the most personal work?
J. C.: By far. The house where the main character lives is the brownstone where I grew up. The trek that he takes each day from Washington Heights to Riverdale was also spot on. The "wanting to be an artist but his parents didn't want him to" was also a slice of my life. But a lot of the daily microaggressions came from watching my sons in a similar situation. As a dad, you want to keep your kids safe, and overall, I think I was pretty open about our experiences. I did need to inject a lot of humor so that it wouldn't be seen as angry, which is always a concern when I'm doing books for kids.
How did you get into creating for middle-grade readers?
J. C.: Almost by accident. I published my first book, Mama's Boyz, in 1997. I made it for adults like me who grew up reading and loving comic strips. I didn't intend for it to be for kids, so when a customer asked if he could get it for his son, it took me a second to answer. I knew there was nothing inappropriate, but it wasn't anything that had ever occurred to me. Once he bought the book, the kid went to a corner of the book fair and read the entire thing and loved it. That's what started the journey.
What's the most surprising feedback you've received from readers?
J. C.: The amount of support, both generational and global. I knew kids would love it, especially kids of color, but the support I've gotten from teachers, librarians, mom, dads, bookstore owners, etc. has been phenomenal! And all types of kids. I even did a Skype visit with a class in New Zealand who told me how much they identified with the characters in the book. That is pretty amazing.
New Kid is the first graphic novel to win the Newbery—what has that meant to you? What do you think it says about the industry's relationship to this kind of storytelling?
J. C.: It is an honor to "legitimize the graphic novel format" in so many people's eyes—especially having grown up hearing that comic books would rot my brain! Artists like [fellow SVA alumnus] Raina Telgemeier (BFA 2002 Illustration) and books like El Deafo, Roller Girl and American Born Chinese got the ball downfield, so it was much easier for me to take it over the goal line.
I also feel it's given new hope to all the teachers and librarians who know that any reading that a kid does is good reading. And that there are no "non-readers," just kids who have not found their book yet. There is a lot of positive energy right now, which has me working even harder on Class Act, the sequel.
A bookseller tweeted that a kid came into her store and told his dad that he wanted a graphic novel, but his dad said no because it wasn't really reading. The bookseller then told the dad that a graphic novel had just won the Newbery, to which the dad responded, "Oh, in that case, get what you want." It doesn't get much better than that!
Check out Craft's recommendations for other great graphic reads.