Jerry Craft, the Newbery Award-winning author of New Kid, paid HPL a visit in June 2022 for our Summer Reading Author Series. Youth and Family Services Manager LaTrisha Milton sat down with our guest and talked about his upbringing, his experience in the spotlight, and Jordan Banks’ next adventure.
This Inside Voices Q&A Feature was originally published in the Link magazine's inaugural issue. Download your copy here.
LaTrisha Milton: Can you describe the kind of research and practice that as an artist, goes into creating a graphic novel that happens to be rooted in personal experiences?
Jerry Craft: The first thing I did, was to look at my life, to see what was something everyone could relate to. And then, what was unique to my experiences, something a smaller audience would recognize, but only because they had never read about it before. I was born in Harlem, I grew up in Washington Heights, and then got sent to school in Riverdale going back and forth between two different worlds every day. I wrote and illustrated what I lived as a student, and then witnessed my sons for 10 years do the same. It’s authentic, especially for the kids of color who know what it’s like, and readers respond to that.
LM: As a response to censorship, Banned Books Week is an awareness campaign but also a call to action. Can you share an example or two of how your books being targeted served as motivation for readers?
JC: I first learned that New Kid had been banned in the school district in Texas because people on Twitter started DMing me. And then I got the updates: “This happened at the school board meeting last night, here’s a video.” I didn’t even want to watch the video, because the book is my baby. It’s like someone talking about one of your kids. On the anti-New Kid side, there was a petition to get the books taken out of the school library and to cancel my Zoom visit. But on the pro-New Kid side, there were maybe seven times as many people. Almost 3,000 people signed a petition to reinstate me. A bookstore in Katy, Brown Sugar Café and Books, helped raise money and they literally gave out free copies to teachers and kids and people that might not be able to see the book if it had been pulled. The school board, after a week, determined that the allegations were unfounded. I hate that it happened. The silver lining is that more kids saw it. I hate that I didn’t get that kind of news coverage winning the Newbery Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Kirkus Prize as I did for being banned. Unfortunately, sometimes we celebrate adversity more than we celebrate someone that really worked hard to get to where they are.
LM: New Kid and Class Act are not instructional books, so what are your thoughts on how they promote equity in children’s literature nonetheless?
JC: I don’t know what you as a woman in the public library system, or women in corporate America, go through, but I know it’s different than what I have gone through. Shouldn’t you be allowed to tell your story? And if you tell your story, is it up to me to say, “That’s sexist! That’s anti-male!” When I hear about the glass ceiling, women getting paid $.75 on the dollar to male counterparts, I examine myself, and consider the advantages I have as a male, even as a Black male. But race isn’t done that way, it’s not handled the same. You don’t have that same equity and balance. Jordan Banks in New Kid says, “so it’s OK that this stuff happens to me, it’s just not OK for me to talk about it.” And that, I think is what it comes down to. Instead of someone saying, “wow, what can we do to make our African American kids or kids of color feel more comfortable?” It’s “what can we do to now silence them so that they can continue to be uncomfortable.” At the end of the day, do they really care?
LM: It is said that books are windows and mirrors. Because September is Library Card Month, finish this sentence: Library cards are...
JC: Library cards are the passport to get your mind to travel to other cities, other states, other countries, even other universes.
LM: What new project or projects do you have coming up?
JC: I am proud to say that the third (and possibly final) book in the series is finished and is scheduled to be released on April 4th, 2023. It’s called School Trip and will follow Jordan and Drew and their friends as they travel to Paris, France. I’ve never seen kids of color portrayed as world travelers in books. So my goal, what I am obsessed with, is if I haven’t seen it, I’m going to do it. And I think it’s the best book of the three. I put a lot of work into it and did not shy away from anything. I’ve never let any of the criticism deter me. Instead, I let the love and support that I’ve received from the first two books inspire me. And I think you’re really going to like it.