Read Jerry Craft's 2020 Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech at ALA's Virtual Book Award Celebration

I’d like to begin by thanking the 2020 Newbery Award Selection Committee, chaired by the incomparable Krishna Grady. Thank you for the tremendous honor of making New Kid the first graphic novel in your ninety-eight-year history to receive your prestigious medal. I would also like to thank the ALA for making this moment possible. I had hoped to celebrate with you all in person, and I still hope I will get the opportunity to do so before too long.

As I reflect on my life as a reader, my path led me from Dr. Seuss, to Spider-Man comic books, to practically nothing but an occasional magazine article. I always could read. I just never enjoyed it. I was literally an adult before I picked up a book as a form of entertainment. Until that moment, the only books I read were reference volumes on how to use things like Adobe Photoshop. I will never cease to be amazed when I look back at my less-than-auspicious beginning as a reader, and follow it all the way to winning the prestigious Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” I’m certain even my wild adolescent imagination would not have predicted this outcome.

Ever since I first began to visit schools and libraries across the country, I have always been comforted by the sight of so many librarians working tirelessly to connect the right book to the right reader. Unfortunately, I did not get to have that experience. Although I grew up near a public library in the Washington Heights section of New York City, I rarely visited, as it was almost never open. And the few times I did venture inside, it was because it was that dreaded time of year when I had to write a paper for school. Inside, it was quiet except for the squeak of my PRO-Keds on a newly waxed floor. I don’t remember ever being warmly greeted. Or having a relationship with a librarian. Only the dull colors and musty smells of a place that I would rather not be. It was not a place of comfort, joy, or relaxation. The total opposite of what I have had the privilege to witness now.

Meanwhile, ten blocks in the opposite direction was a comic-book store on Broadway where my dad and I were warmly greeted by an older man named Freddie who was always glad to see us. I spent many happy hours looking through back issues to fill my collection of Marvel Team-Up or the Silver Surfer. It was a totally different experience. I felt welcomed as a reader.

I don’t remember my elementary school, School on the Hill in Harlem, or my junior high school, St. Matthew’s Lutheran School in Inwood, as ever having a librarian. Or a library for that matter.

At home, my dad read the New York Daily News each day, while my mom always seemed to have subscriptions to Black magazines such as Essence, Ebony, and, occasionally, Jet.

The Sunday newspaper comics section was always a big deal, as I rushed to read Peanuts, or Broom Hilda, or Hägar the Horrible.

And then I got an Atari. 

The end!

Okay, obviously that’s not really the end of my reading, but my entertainment from childhood to my teenage years consisted mainly of playing outside with my friends (stickball, football, skateboards); my Atari; reading Marvel Comics; and making my own comics. But since I never really considered myself a reader, I never considered myself a writer. I just called myself an artist.

The only book I remember reading in elementary school or junior high school was Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. I guess it was about a bird. And I only know the author’s name now because I recently Googled the book. But because most of my teachers confiscated our comic books whenever they caught us reading them in class, I was conditioned early on to think that “fun reading” was illegal, and “real reading” had to be painful. And so it was.

High school was a different story. Now I was expected to read. A lot! But how was a kid from Washington Heights who was never taught how to appreciate books expected to be able to now read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner? Or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot? Or anything by Anton Chekhov? For me, the biggest tragedy of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was that it was 1,216 pages long!!! WHY?!!!! Just…WHY?! I remember devising a plan with my friend Rick where he would read the first six hundred pages, while I read the last six hundred pages, and then we would compare notes. That plan did not go well.

That’s why I feel so strongly when a parent gets angry that their kid is “only reading graphic novels”! I wish they would understand that their kid is reading, and reading something for pleasure, an experience that I did not have in my youth. One of the most important and transformative gifts a child can have is a love of reading!

The first big-boy book that I remember ever finishing didn’t come until high school. It was also the first book that I ever really enjoyed: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It was 384 pages!!! What made that book so special? In retrospect, the protagonist was as close to a mirror as I had ever experienced. Which was weird since I was a Black kid born in Harlem, while he was an orphaned White boy named Pip who lived in nineteenth-century London. But at least he was a kid. A kid who not only had dreams but “Great Expectations”! And just as important: the other characters in the book had “Great Expectations” for him as well.

I never saw that in any book about a kid who actually looked like me. The kids who looked like me expected nothing. They just tried to survive. Maybe I just saw the wrong books, but I was never exposed to mirrors in literature. Only runaway slaves, tormented kids of the civil rights era, and victims of gang violence or police brutality. Not that those aren’t important stories. They are! But so are stories that show us being happy. I felt like my mirrors were often broken to the point that they became dangerous shards of glass that sliced into the comfort and naiveté of my childhood. For me, it was never enough for a story to have a joyful ending if the rest of the book dealt with the protagonist’s seemingly endless suffering.

So there was only Pip. Now imagine the memories I would have of that book if he had been African American.

That was Jerry Craft, the reader. Then there’s Jerry Craft, the writer. And how I managed to become one without being the other.

As far as I can remember, I have always loved to draw. Going to see movies as a kid and making comic versions of the stories to send to my brother who was a Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan, was great fun. Those were probably my first comic strips. But once again, there were very few mirrors. There was Franklin from Peanuts and Lt. Flap from Beetle Bailey, but they were never the main characters. I didn’t see that until Wee Pals by Morrie Turner (which also became a TV show called Kid Power) and Luther by Brumsic Brandon Jr.

After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, I was inspired by a new wave of Black comic strips including Curtis by Ray Billingsley and Where I’m Coming From by Barbara Brandon, and I decided to create my own comic strip called Mama’s Boyz, which is about a mom raising her two teenage sons while running the family bookstore. None of the syndicates wanted it. They “already had a Black comic strip.” Eventually it was distributed weekly by King Features Syndicate to smaller papers across the country, and this run lasted for more than twenty years. I made almost no money from it, but I wanted to show people that kids of color do regular stuff too. Like eating pizza, or going to a mall, or watching TV with their families. I wanted to show the all-too-often missing slice of humanity of African American lives. And to call out the lack of humanity whenever some people hear that a Black or Brown teen is killed, when they immediately think that there will be one less kid who will grow up to be in a gang, rather than thinking that humanity has possibly just lost a future Kwame Alexander. Or Jason Reynolds. Or Renée Watson. Or Jacqueline Woodson. Or Eric Velasquez. Or Elizabeth Acevedo. Or Kadir Nelson. Kids who grew up to make huge contributions to our world. So my next step was to turn the comic strip into a book.

But even though nearly two decades had passed, books about slavery, civil rights, police encounters, and gangs still disproportionately represented Black life. You may never see that single-story narrative as a problem unless you actually were a Black kid or have raised them. But just imagine being a kid of color when, after having your teacher read a book out loud to the class, your best friend turns to you and proclaims in front of everyone that “if you were my slave, I would have freed you.”

In that young mind, this was said with the absolute best of intentions. But what would hearing that do to you as a kid? Or you as a parent raising that kid? Or imagine what it’s like when your child, whom you love more than anything in the world and have sworn to protect, comes home to say that a not-so-well-meaning child told him that they had to get on the back of the line at recess, or sit in the back of the school bus, because they’re Black.

I wanted to create stories that show the side of African American life that isn’t steeped in misery. A book that kids of color can proudly embrace, and that other kids can still relate to.

But all I got from publishers were rejection letters. So in 1997, I began to publish my own books. Years later, I began to help others to publish their books. And then in 2014, after helping to publish nearly three dozen books, I got the chance to illustrate a book for Scholastic called The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, written by Patrik Henry Bass and edited by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

That experience showed me that I was, in fact, worthy of being a “real” author and illustrator. Around that time, I had already begun to think of doing a graphic novel loosely based on my life, and the lives of my sons, since each of us had the experience of being one of the few kids of color in a predominantly White private school. But my conditioning that Black books are only for Black kids, or Black books have to be tragic, placed me in a creative ditch that even I had to struggle to climb out of. What would I have to do for a book like this to be embraced by everyone? Would I have to make the characters animals? Would I have to write it from a White kid’s perspective of what it’s like to have a Black friend? These are ideas that I actually began to sketch out until they felt like dirt rushing in from the sides of that ditch to bury my creative soul alive.

And so, after many sleepless nights of reflection, and countless revisions, I created New Kid, a middle-grade graphic novel about a twelve-year-old boy from the Washington Heights section of New York City whose parents make him go to an elite private school in Riverdale, where he is one of the few kids of color in his class. A book that has caused teachers to come to me and share stories of kids who had never enjoyed reading a book before. These teachers have told me about their students of color who have broken down and sobbed because they have never seen themselves in a book. I’ve had teachers Skype and Zoom from places like New Zealand and China to tell me just how much their students relate to the character of Jordan Banks. I’ve had parents and teachers and book groups thank me for creating a book that has inspired amazing conversations that have helped to change the culture of their schools.

With New Kid, I wrote the book that I wish I’d had when I was a kid. I wrote the book that I wish I could have fond memories of today — of how it gave me hope and changed my life. I wrote the book that I wish I had been able to give to my sons and watch them carry around proudly. A book that when I woke them up to go to school in the morning I would see flipped over on their nightstand so they wouldn’t lose their place. And they would read it while having breakfast. And on the ride to school. A book that their White friends would read and realize that Black fathers and grandfathers and mothers who love their kids really do exist! A book that showed its readers that they are just as good. Just as smart. And that, like other kids, it was okay for them to also have great expectations!

In closing, I would like to thank my family, Jay, Aren, and Autier, for their love and support throughout this thirty-year struggle to become an overnight success. My sons continue to be my inspiration as well as my editors.

My agent, Judy Hansen, who has fought with me, and most importantly for me, to bring New Kid to life.

My amazing team from HarperCollins, starting with Suzanne Murphy, Rosemary Brosnan, and my editor, Andrew Eliopulos, for believing in me enough to give me the opportunity to tell my story my way.

My first publishing family from Scholastic, with Debra Dorfman, Andrea Davis Pinkney, and David Saylor.

Barbara Slate, who gave me my first job in comics. Andrea Colvin, Jeff Kinney, Calvin Reid, Charlie Kochman, Marva Allen, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Pam Allyn, and all the others who have always made me feel like I belonged at the adult dinner table.

Thank you to my fans. The teachers. The librarians. The book groups.

My colorist, Jim Callahan.

Thank you to the creators of the graphic novels that helped to pave the way for New Kid to win this honor: Raina Telgemeier, Gene Luen Yang, Cece Bell, David Small, Jarrett Krosoczka, Kazu Kibuishi, Victoria Jamieson, and so many others. And once again, to the Newbery committee who gave me the absolute best phone call I have ever received in my life! And the greatest honor. You have shown the world that graphic novels are indeed “real reading”!

Thank you! 


Jerry Craft is the winner of the 2020 Newbery Medal for New Kid, published by Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. His acceptance speech was delivered at the virtual American Library Association Book Award Celebration, on June 28, 2020. From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2020. Look for the full electronic issue -- free -- beginning next week.


Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269
ksouth@juniorlibraryguild.com

 

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Bonnie Dackow

I am excited to order your book, read it and pass it on to my grandchildren, who love graphic novels, to read.

Posted : Aug 29, 2020 02:22


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