After the Call: I Get It Now

More than two years later, I still find myself trying to comprehend the magnitude of how my life changed on January 27, 2020. The most baffling question being, “How did this kid who hated to read grow up to win ‘the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children’?”

I had heard that the Newbery calls come in very early in the morning, anywhere from 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., so I did not shut my phone off as usual. I think I woke up at 5:30 on my own and began to anxiously stare up at the ceiling. By 6:30 a.m., I assumed the call would not come, thanked the universe for a great ride, then rolled over to go back to sleep.

Twelve minutes later, at 6:42 a.m., my phone rang. (If this was a call for me to extend my car warranty, I would dedicate the rest of my life to finding the person on the other end.)

“Good morning, may I speak with Jerry Craft?” began a very emotional greeting by chair Krishna Grady, followed closely by, “Your book, New Kid, will be awarded the Newbery Medal at the ALA Youth Media Awards press conference.” Then there was a scream. But not from me. From them! I was too stunned to say much of anything.

“Wow, this is amazing!” was my reply. But to be honest, I had no idea just how amazing it was at the time.

I would like to tell everyone that this was a dream come true, but once again, as a kid I hated to read. So I didn’t even know I was allowed to have a dream like this. I also never knew that, for the millions of book lovers around the globe, this is the Oscars. There are predictions all over social media, and watch parties, and articles. It truly is amazing! And I had missed out on this excitement my entire life.

I did start to get it when I saw the video of the Newbery selection ­committee huddled together in that small room, wiping away tears and fanning themselves as they dialed my ­number. I got it even more when my friend Donna also called me in tears when she found out that I had won. She had grown up reading every Newbery book that she could get her hands on. (And she wasn’t a librarian, she was a real person! Well, you know what I mean.) And it sank in even more as I saw the tweets from watch parties cheering my win.

But what really did it for me was relating the award to my own life. When I became a dad, one of the things I promised myself was that my sons would be the readers I never was. So I read to them every night. I remember picking up a copy of Bud, Not Buddy by ­Christopher Paul Curtis in hopes that they could bond with an African American protagonist the way I never could. The book also stuck out because it had two stickers on the front cover, so it had to be good, right?…It was! I was back at the library two weeks later, looking for more books with those stickers. Next up was Holes by Louis Sachar.

It took a few days after I won the Newbery for it to dawn on me that I had joined Christopher Paul Curtis, along with Kwame Alexander, Mildred D. Taylor, and Virginia Hamilton as the only five African American authors to ever win the award. I was truly humbled. Realizing that New Kid was also the first graphic novel to win let flow a different wave of emotions, especially since there were so many amazing graphic novels that had come before mine. This was topped off by reading an article in Time magazine: “Raina Telgemeier on Why Jerry Craft’s Newbery Medal Matters.” Wow! Raina’s Smile was the first middle-grade graphic novel I ever read.

Unfortunately, due to COVID, I didn’t get to make my speech in person, but the outpouring of love has been incredible. Now each January, I, too, make my own predictions, then get up really early to log on and see the new batch of winners. It is such a privilege and an honor that I will remember for the rest of my life.

And most importantly, I can honestly say that I get it now.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Jerry Craft

Jerry Craft won the 2020 Newbery Medal and 2020 Coretta Scott King Author Award for New Kid; its sequel, Class Act (both Quill Tree/HarperAlley/HarperCollins), is his latest book.

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