Jerry Craft Talks with Roger

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Jerry Craft is not a new kid; his syndicated comic strip Mama’s Boyz debuted nearly twenty-five years ago. But in the graphic novel New Kid, he remembers what’s it’s like to be one.

Roger Sutton: The school in New Kid is based on the private school you went to in New York, right? Which I gather is a pretty fancy school.

Jerry Craft: Yes, it is the Fieldston SchoolNew Kid was loosely based on my four years there, from ninth through twelfth grade, and also my sons going to private school in New Canaan, Connecticut. I added some stuff from my life and some stuff from their lives to make what I thought would be the best mix for the story.

RS: A mix of you and your sons.

JC: The parts that were me were living in Washington Heights in a predominantly African American neighborhood and wanting to be an artist. And I was always smaller and younger than most of the kids I went to school with. Where my sons come in is the more contemporary setting, because, Roger, as you know, when we were kids, there was no internet and Facebook and Twitter and social media and that stuff. I wanted to create a more contemporary story, rather than doing a flashback that kids wouldn’t relate to as well. And then Jordan’s personality — he’s a nice kid with good home training. I expanded on my sons’ and my traits — each of us having some shy moments, but also being funny. Not the kind of kid who would get up on the table and dance or tell jokes and want to be the center of attention; more like someone who others gravitate to because they feel safe around him.

RS: Also, you artists, man. You just sit quietly in the corner and take visual notes on the rest of us.

JC: Yeah, absolutely. And my sons are very much like that also, that fly on the wall. The three of us joke around a lot. There are famous African American male comedians — from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart — but you don’t really see funny African American teenagers in books or movies. They always have the weight of the world on them, and it’s always a struggle.

RS: Your ongoing joke in the book about what “African American books” are considered for teens — The Mean Streets of South Uptown versus The Magic of the Magical Magicon starring white kids. I thought that was very funny, but also very daring.

JC: I didn’t know what the reaction from my publisher would be, whether they would feel uncomfortable and want me to cut that part. While working on the story, I didn’t know if I would ever get another shot at doing a book that would be considered a lead title, so I really wanted to pack this one as full as I could with both entertainment and things that would start a conversation for change. By the end it was like overpacking a suitcase — I had to kind of sit on it to zip it up, because I was trying to put so much in for so many different people. HarperCollins let me do exactly the book that I wanted to do. When they talk about #OwnVoices, they really were very soft with the edits. Some of their suggestions definitely made the book better. But as far as the messages that I wanted to share with the world, even if those were a little weighty, they gave me their full confidence. Now when I see the attention the book has received — it obviously was a good decision on all of our parts, and I’m honored by the reaction that I’ve gotten.

RS: To use the term #OwnVoices, this is such an “own voice” book in that such an individual voice arises from the story. It’s clearly authentic, as a person’s soul put on the page. You can’t get more #OwnVoices than that.

JC: There have been so few specifically African American characters that have made a real impact on society. We’re close in age — you grew up with Fat Albert. You might be hard pressed to come up with something that’s even a number two to Fat Albert, that an entire generation grew up with and knew the characters. I grew up wanting to be Spider-Man. My kids wanted to be Percy Jackson or Greg Heffley from Wimpy Kid. But it’s so rare that you ever see white kids aspiring to be any African American characters from anything. I wanted to have a character who was African American but his appeal was so universal that even a white girl from Iowa or a kid from New Zealand could go, “Wow, I am Jordan Banks, because that kid speaks to me. We have this in common, so we are kindred spirits.”

RS: A kid going to a new school is such a core theme in books for children and teenagers, so you have this hook right there at the beginning. It’s a fascinating one to me, because I went to first grade through twelfth grade in the same school system, never changed. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to go to a new school. Is it?

JC: Yeah. And most of my schools before Fieldston had twenty-five kids in the whole grade, of which twenty-two were African American. And then going to Fieldston, where now there are 110 kids in the grade, of which ten are African American, and maybe half of those African American kids had been in that Fieldston school system their entire lives, so I had nothing in common with them. We didn’t like the same foods, we didn’t vacation in the same places — I was Coney Island and they were Fire Island or the Canary Islands. I was Toys R Us and they were FAO Schwarz.

RS: I remember first meeting rich kids in college, and it astounded me.

JC: Right. And literally the only white kids I knew were The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. I didn’t grow up hanging out with white kids. At school, my close friends and I were the only ones who didn’t know about The Rocky Horror Picture Show or KISS or Aerosmith or any of that — some of the references, and the food, and having a maid. My dad would drive me up to school in our 1973 Ford LTD, and there would be Mercedes and Bentleys with diplomatic license plates. My dad, for my college applications, got his boss from the post office, where he worked thirty years, to write me a letter of recommendation and meanwhile someone else in my class got their letter of recommendation from, like, Ted Kennedy. It was different.

RS: I like how Jordan found a friend group that was composed of all different sorts of kids, and we got to see how those relationships differed for him. He really does make his own individual way. Was that you, too?

JC: There were five of us, four Black kids from the Bronx and myself. We were the closest, but we did have white friends who were middle-class from the Bronx. I didn’t really have a Liam, a really wealthy kid, per se. This is four years of me going to Fieldston, but also about thirteen years of me being a parent of sons at private school. I remember the first day of school and my wife and I sitting in with all the parents, like “Is that Paul Simon and Edie Brickell? Yeah. Is that Harry Connick Jr.? Yeah.” Holy moly.

RS: What’s the racial breakdown like in that school?

JC: Oh, it was the same. My sons, for the most part, were the only Black boys in their class, and occasionally in their grade. But it was different for them — it wasn’t like they started in ninth grade like I did. They started in beginners and went all the way up to ninth grade, where for me it was like being pushed into a cold swimming pool: “Okay, you have to swim.” They got all the swimming lessons when everyone else did, so they were a part of that whole culture. But in our circle of family and friends — we were the family that was doing pretty well, we had the house and two cars. And then you go to school every day in New Canaan for drop-off, and now all of a sudden we’re the poor family. Imagine every day going from, “Hey, you guys are doing pretty well,” to “Hey, do you guys need food? Are you hungry?” No, we’re not hungry. We don’t live in a mansion, but we’re okay, thank you. There were just so many things like that, that if you take the time not to be offended — they can be hysterical.

RS: And the humor really comes thick and fast. You don’t set up your jokes in a dramatic way. You bop from one to another to another so the overall effect is hilarious, but it’s all in a rush. I mean that as a compliment.

JC: Thank you. I think that came from doing a syndicated comic strip for years where you had to end in a gag. It was setup, setup, gag. Setup, setup, punch line. Boom, boom, boom. But also I knew that any book for kids that’s talking about both race and class, if I wasn’t careful, could be seen as angry or problematic or something off-putting. So I really wanted to make it as funny as I could, laugh-out-loud if I could. That’s why I have Alexandra with the sock puppet, just some stuff that’s absolutely ridiculous, so that when I would be talking about race or class, it didn’t come across as hurtful or me attacking a system or a group of people. That was why I tried very hard to break the rich-kid stereotype with Liam, because when I was a kid — in every John Hughes movie, the rich kid was played by James Spader, and Anthony Michael Hall was the nice kid, and James Spader would drive up in his Corvette with his cardigan wrapped around his neck, and he’d be the most arrogant, nasty kid. I didn’t want to have rich-kid stereotypes as strongly as I didn’t want to have Black-kid stereotypes.

RS: And the humor permeates the whole book. No character is safe.

JC: Right.

RS: I remember talking to Walter Dean Myers — this would have been in the 1980s — and he said the image of Black literature was, “Oh, the horrors of slavery.” He wrote some very funny books, but certainly those weren’t the rule; they were the exception.

JC: Here’s the whole African American psyche, almost. You have a TV show about a family in the projects. There’s poverty, there are drug dealers, there’s always a struggle, struggle, struggle. Every day is hard. And what do they name the show? Good Times. Where were the good times? There were never any good times. I think that as a people we have gotten so complacent in misery that we almost expect it. I really wanted to break the mold. Look, Jordan has a mom and a dad. No one is going to die in the book. I know I’m conditioned that every time I like a character in a book that he or she is going to die.

RS: What have you been reading?!

JC: Right! That’s why I even did the opposite. I led the readers to believe that Gran’pa was dead.

RS: Oh, that was funny!

JC: And then it’s like “Jordan, I’m not dead. I just moved to Yonkers.” But I think you always expect the dead father, grandfather, the kid is sad, and it’s this whole thing. I was like, “I’m going to fool you guys, because I know you’re expecting something sad. I know you’re expecting someone to die. I’m actually going to do the opposite and resurrect a character in front of your own eyes. The joke is on you, because you’re waiting for this sad, mushy Dr. Phil moment of tears and, Grandpa, I miss you, are you in heaven? But instead it’s: Grandpa, your lightbulb is horrible. Let’s change the light here.”

RS: Have you heard from any contemporary kids at Fieldston? How do they respond?

JC: I just did an assembly there, and they absolutely loved it. I even went back to New Canaan Country School, and some of the teachers who I kind of parodied a little bit in the book were like, “Wow, was that me? I learned a lesson here.” Some of those things really did happen, like my son — they thought he was being antisocial, and they called me up to let me know. So then I’m waiting nervously for my son to come home from school. My wife and I were like, “Is everything okay? Have we been fighting around him? No. Well, why is he being antisocial?” He comes home, and I have this big scene ready. I pour him a cup of cocoa, and ask, “Everything okay? Your teacher says you’re being antisocial. Why aren’t you going out to play with the other kids? Are you being bullied?” He’s like, “No, Dad, it’s too cold out!”

RS: I sense a theme in this for you: weather.

JC: Yeah. I was like: Wow. Why didn’t his teacher just ask why he didn’t go outside? Why did she feel like she had to elevate the situation and make it as if he were this kid who was alienating himself from his classmates?

RS: With pretty much all of the teachers in the book — most of them are well-meaning, but they just keep stepping in it, over and over again.

JC: Right. Well-meaning doesn’t mean well-doing. Say you come out of the men’s room and you have this friend who announces — “Hey, Roger, you’ve got toilet paper stuck to your foot.” That’s not really doing you a favor, because they meant to embarrass you. Now everyone looks, and they laugh. My thing would be to pull you over and tell you. I don’t want you to be embarrassed, because you and I are friends. With this book, I wanted to be the kind of friend who puts their arm around your shoulder and says, “Hey, you know what, maybe as a librarian, if the only books about people of color that you’re giving to kids are, like, The Mean Streets of South Uptown — maybe you can look for something else, because although you think that they’re impactful — those books are not really about happiness. They’re not about living, just survival.” Kids want to be Harry Potter. They don’t want to be the miserable kid who’s always suffering. I had one librarian on Twitter say, “Oh, I wish the librarian character were nicer.” But another librarian replied, “An African American girl came into the library — she loved The Hate U Give and was asking for more stuff like that. So I gave her some more gang books and shoot-’em-up books and that kind of thing. And then when I read New Kid, I realized I was that librarian from the book. That little girl didn’t want violent books. She wanted to read about another positive young African American female protagonist who knew how to overcome things using her brain and her wits. And I realize that I failed her, because I just thought she was going for the violence and the misery. So thank you for pointing that out.” That was one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten about the book.

RS: One of the things I love most about the We Need Diverse Books movement is I feel like the range of books from non-white voices has really expanded. It’s not just gritty social realism. There’s comedy, there’s fantasy, there’s vampire books. It’s great that there’s so much now that gives kids, all kids, more of a picture of what the African American imagination can come up with.

JC: I really want to add to the important historical narratives that already exist by giving kids stories that are family oriented, contemporary, and funny. One of my favorite picture books is newly released — Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez. A grandma is cooking octopus stew with her grandkid, and the octopus comes alive and grabs the grandma, and then you realize it’s the kid’s imagination and he’s talking in front of his family, and there are men and women there, moms and dads. It’s just such a nice book with beautiful illustrations and about a kid being a kid — and he’s a really cool kid who anyone can identify with. I wish I had books like that to read to my sons, and I definitely wish I had something like that to read when I was a kid.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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