Review of the Day: New Kid by Jerry Craft
Gaps. Sometimes they’re all that I can see.
Imagine you have a brain that allows you to retain information in compartmentalized slots. You have chosen the field of “librarian” so this trait is useful in your day-to-day work. As you read children’s books over the course of a year, you categorize each one. You note similarities, differences, and books that don’t strike you as like anything else out there. And you continue to keep track year after year, building up your knowledge, tracking what you’ve seen.
Now I’ve been in the children’s librarianship business for quite a while. Along the way, I’ve identified the areas that I really prefer to read. Comics, for example, are great. I’m a big time fan. Better still, comics are seeing a real Renaissance lately. Publishers of every stripe are stepping up to the challenge, providing graphic literature for the hungry young masses. It’s an amazing time to be a comic reader or creator.
So tell me this. All those comics out there. All that time. All that energy. Why is it, then, that I cannot come up with a single comic out there for kids that stars a contemporary black boy who doesn’t have super powers? Oh, I can think of the superpowered comics of Miles Morales or the highly charming Sci-Fu. I can think of comics where the black kid is paired with someone else (Lost in NYC) or is part of a large group (“Cardboard Kingdom”). Honestly only one book comes to mind and that’s Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri and, let me tell you, even though he’s the title character, practically the first thing you learn about Yummy is that he’s dead. Do you see, then, why New Kid is such a rarity? Into this gaping void comes a book with a simple fish out of water premise. What sets it apart, though, is how it chooses to realistically deal with all the crap a kid like Jordan Banks has to contend with in his day-to-day life. Blisteringly honest with a respect for young readers that is sadly uncommon, Jerry Craft has created something revolutionary: An everyday black boy in a comic for kids.
Middle school is hard. Switching schools is hard. Now imagine switching to a private middle school where you’re one of the few black kids there. Jordan Banks is a seventh grader with a dream. He wants to go to art school where he can let his drawings soar. Instead, he finds himself at hoity-toity Riverdale Academy Day School. It’s okay and the kids are generally pretty nice (with some notable exceptions) but Jordan can’t help noticing things. Teachers who get the black kids’ names mixed up. Classmates that get away with murder. Privilege privilege privilege. The longer he stays, the more he sees. The more he sees, the more he understands. And the more he understands, the better prepared he’s going to be for the real world out there.
It was only a few years ago that I learned the term “microaggression”. Basically it means, “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” With that definition in hand, New Kid can feel like a crash course in how to make someone feel bad. Like a composer of a symphony, Craft gathers together every possible microaggression in his arsenal and weaves them into a comprehensive story. To do this, Craft assembles a crack team of awful people. You have the well-meaning teacher who’s threatened by any student of color raising issues with her (she calls Jordan’s comics a polemic, “against everything this school stands for. And me!”). You have the white kid that makes everyone’s life a misery but never gets called out on it. There are teachers that call the other black teachers “coach” even though they’ve known them for years. A librarian who only hands the black kids books about struggle and hardship (starring other black kids, naturally). With great care, Craft filters these people and moments throughout the book, managing to balance the heavy moments with lighter ones. Even when the story is serious, though, it manages to lighten the tension with ease. The end result is that a kid doesn’t feel like they’re getting info on the state of the world today, but they are. Oh boy howdy, they are.
Truth be told, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a plot forward comic. There’s no overarching goal that Jordan’s reaching for the whole time. Basically, he’s trying to survive middle school in the day-to-day, and we’re just surviving there alongside him. I was a little surprised, since I assumed Craft was going to make this center on Jordan’s struggle with his desire to go to art school. Instead, that dream just sorta peters out, though he retains his love of drawing. The end result is a book with form but no drive. Looking back on it, the climax comes when Jordan stands up to some of those people that have made him feel awful. He confronts what’s wrong with the system and, if he doesn’t dismantle it, he at least takes it down a peg. In light of that, I didn’t mind so much the book’s easygoing plotting. Sometimes, though, I did yearn for more clarification. For example, there’s an odd plot point where one of the kids at school is kicked out because he’s on financial aid, but the school found out he accompanied another student to Hawaii over break. It’s a throwaway moment, and maybe things like that happen with real private schools, but I found it a bit confusing and it was never really visited again after the initial discovery.
And then I started thinking about what I could possibly compare this book to. For a lot of kids, comics used to be pure escapism and nothing else. What changed? On the adult side of the equation you had Maus talking about the Holocaust (albeit with mice). On the kids’ side? I think of some of the most popular authors of graphic novels for middle grade readers these days. Cece Bell, Raina Telgemeier, Jeff Kinney (if you count Wimpy Kid), Vera Brosgol, Victoria Jamieson, Shannon Hale, etc. What all these folks have in common is their willingness to tell stories about real kids (often themselves) dealing with real problems. What else do they have in common? They’re all white. We know from the We Need Diverse Books movement that a lack of diverse points of view has always been a problem in children’s literature, but it seems to have been taken to an extreme case in comics. What do I compare this book to? Itself. And let me tell you, it would be noteworthy, interesting, fun, and thought provoking even if there were hundreds of books out there starring historically marginalized kids. More than just the sum of its parts, Craft has created a book with guts, that kids will want to read multiple times. Funny, whip smart stuff.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: Definitely check out Steve Sheinkin’s Walking and Talking comic with Jerry Craft. Provides a little additional insight into its making.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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