Books & Bites: Skype with Jerry Craft, author of New Kid

Posted & filed under Blog.

I heard about New Kid by Jerry Craft before the National Council of Teachers of English conference in November 2018 as the buzz about it started to grow. I read a digital galley and understood that the hype was real and well-deserved. I then found Jerry on Twitter and shared my appreciation for this groundbreaking, insightful, humorous, and engaging book. The power of Twitter led to Jerry and I connecting and planning a Skype visit for the library’s March Books & Bites. I was able to give away a bunch of copies of New Kid to people who registered for our program because I wanted to ensure that our participants could access this incredible story – and be prepared to fully engage in our book conversation and Skype. As we got closer to our program, I discovered that ALL of the copies in our entire library system were checked out, on hold, or awaiting pick-up, so it was particularly fortuitous that we had purchased copies for our group to read and add to their personal library collections.

Our program was full, with a wait-list, and even more kids wanted to join us. It was the largest Books & Bites program we have ever had! The kids settled into the room, getting their treats (healthier snacks since they asked for them) and finding their seats. While they did this, I played a snippet from the full-cast audiobook of New Kid, sharing a taste of this extraordinary production to hopefully make them curious about the medium and want to check it out. It also was a great way to draw their attention and get everyone ready to start our discussion.

Okay, I have to ask, is it an Easter egg or a coincidence that Jesus Del Orden, who plays Jordan, is also in the Lion King, and Jordan tells his grandfather that “one of the juniors is in the Lion King on Broadway (111)? There are just so many new details I’ve discovered by reading and rereading New Kid for this book club, which is why I had 8 pages of notes – but alas, only a half hour to get ready to talk to Jerry Craft!

In order to prepare them for our Skype visit, I shared background information about Jerry Craft’s extensive career from creating his Mama’s Boyz comic strip, self-publishing his own books, illustrating many books, and collaborating with his sons on The Offenders. I made sure to share the Scholastic book he illustrated, The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrick H. Bass, which one of our participants noted was on display in our library. I also shared the research I did about the origins of New Kid. Jerry wrote that the book was “based on my experience of growing up in the Washington Heights section of NYC and attending the Fieldston School in Riverdale, NY. And not only did I experience it as a student, but I also got to live it again as a parent when my sons attended private schools in CT.”  

We began our discussion by thinking critically about what it meant to be a new kid and the internal and external factors that made attending a new school challenging for Jordan. The kids instantly dove into the conversation about the size of the school, which Jerry Craft illustrated showing Jordan going from building to building on his first day, getting lost and feeling alone. The kids pointed out how the school was mostly white and how “racism is a big thing” in this story. We discussed the importance of having books that can be windows and mirrors, citing Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who originated this idea. She wrote, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books” (1990). We talked about the importance of representation in the books we read. In his author note online, Jerry Craft asked, “Where was my sons’ Wimpy Kid? Or Percy Jackson? Where was their book that they can’t wait to share with their friends, no matter who they are, because they have a story that means as much to them as Smile, or Amulet? Where are the books that show other kids, that there are kids like my sons who like ice cream and pizza and tickle fights, and have both a mom AND a dad? (Insert sound of crickets.)”

We talked about the problems with stereotypes, with the kids coming up with their own definition and thinking about examples of people expressing stereotypes in the book. I shared a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TEDTalk, The Danger of a Single Story: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I asked the kids how people in the story make one story the only story, which led us into a passionate conversation about some of the problematic things people do and say in the book. Some of the kids were particularly bothered by Coach Roche, who constantly asks Jordan if what he’s said is racist, putting the responsibility to educate him on Jordan, which we determined was not right. Our group was very interested in discussing Andy, who often uses microaggressions and does not take responsibility for his actions, even going as far as saying, “Why is everyone always so sensitive about everything?” (198). I shared the definition of microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges, whether intentional or unintentional, that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”  (Sue, p. 24). We talked about how Ms. Rawle calls Drew by the wrong name constantly and the impact of this kind of microaggression. One of our participants shared textual evidence from the graphic novel to show how hurtful this behavior is, quoting Jordan’s sketch book, “But do you know the worst name you could call me? Someone ELSE’S name! Because that means they’re not even talking the time to look at you long enough to even find something to insult! They’re saying that you’re not even worth their time and are insignificant!” (216-217).

We talked about how to stand up to people who are using microaggressions and how to listen and resist being defensive when people share that they have been hurt by our words or actions.

Meeting Jerry Craft

It was then time for us to begin our Skype visit with Jerry Craft. Each participant had a notecard with questions they had written down and I took turns calling on kids to ask their questions. Our group asked for more information about his journey to write New Kid. Jerry shared that “I decided that I would write books that I wish I had when I was your age.” Sharing his reasons for creating New Kid really helped our group better understand what he hoped to accomplish by telling Jordan’s story.

He told us that his sons had a lot of input about New Kid, but he did all of the writing and drawing, working on this project for years. When one kid asked if it was stressful to write it, Jerry shared that “They say that if you do something that you love for a living, you’ll never work a day in life. I loved it so much that I don’t get stressed out.” Jerry shared his publishing journey from self-publishing Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie! in 1997. The kids were curious about his creative inspirations which he shared included Peanuts by Charles Schultz, Marvel comics, Ray Billingsley, the creator of comic strip Curtis, Morrie Turner, creator of the Wee Pals comic strip, and Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile. (During the chat, the kids often referenced things we had discussed, things they knew about Jerry Craft, which is the key to a good author visit.) Our group really wanted to know what caused Andy to be so rude. Jerry responded with a question of his own, asking the kids if they considered Andy a bully. H. responded that “I wouldn’t think he’s very nice, but he’s not a bully.” Our group has consistently looked beyond the bully label and thought deeply about what motivates behavior, seeking more backstory to explain why they lash out, as well as the social context for kids’ actions. They definitely wanted to know more about Andy, which we hope we’ll learn about in the sequel. I really appreciated E.’s question about tips for being a new kid since several of our kids will be heading to middle school next year. Jerry shared the importance of finding your own group of people who like similar things, rather than trying to fit yourself into activities beyond your comfort level. Books offer the best rehearsals for life, so I’d love to see middle school and high school advisory classes sharing New Kid at the beginning of the school year. M. shared a deep question, asking what Jerry hoped to accomplish by the end of 2019. He revealed that he is working on New Kid 2, which made everyone scream loudly. I learned today from the awesome Books Between Podcast with Corrina Allen that the sequel is called Class Act, and it’s planned to be released from HarperCollins during the Fall of 2020.

For the kids who stayed past the end of our program, they were treated to a tour of Jerry’s studio, sharing his bookshelf (spotting Raina’s books by their signature colors), a Black Panther drawing that his sons gave him, posters and prints, and S. even noticed a sketch of Jordan on his drafting table. We got to see the digital book on screen, which was super cool to see the layout of the pages. Our group also noticed the fabulous New Kid merch that Jerry was sporting, including an amazing phone case, so if that store goes live, our kids will be the first in line to proudly support New Kid in style. The finale of our entire experience was meeting Jerry’s adorable dog who is aptly named Snoopy. Our group again shouted with excitement. Jerry kindly went beyond our planned time to answer as many questions as possible. We are so grateful for all of the time and effort Jerry put into visiting with our Books & Bites book club! It was such a pleasure and honor for our reading community to meet Jerry and better understand the hard work, creativity, and personal experiences that went into creating New Kid. We will never look at his book the same way again. Thank you so much, Jerry!!!

Did you know I’ve already mentioned our April selection for Books & Bites in this post? It’s Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Join our waitlist to join us on April 16 from 2:30-3:30. Put your copy on hold now.