Banned Books: Author Jerry Craft on telling stories all kids can identify with
This discussion with Jerry Craft is part of a series of interviews with — and essays by — authors who are finding their books being challenged and banned in the U.S.
Cartoonist and children's book author Jerry Craft published the Newbery award-winning graphic novel New Kid in 2019. New Kid also won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Kirkus Prize.
Craft followed the book with Class Act in 2020 and, coming in April 2023, School Trip. His novels focus on portraying the experiences of kids of color. Craft's work allows kids to see themselves in stories, provoking inspiration and giving voice to diverse experiences.
New Kid focuses on the experience of being Black and the "new kid" at a predominantly white school. It follows Jordan, a seventh grader and aspiring artist from Washington Heights, New York. Jordan's parents send him to a private school to invest in his academic future. As he navigates the differing environments in his neighborhood and his new school, he attempts to stay true to himself.
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The book has been challenged in some school districts including in Texas and Pennsylvania, citing the teaching of critical race theory.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
On capturing reality
In my opinion, a lot of the books with African American protagonists ... there's this really big thing that happens — a life changing event, catastrophic, death or police or someone goes to jail or drugs — and I didn't want to show that. So there is no catastrophe in New Kid, but it's just kind of the day-to-day code switching you get so used to at an early age. My dad lived in the time where they had white drinking fountains and Black drinking fountains. So, I'm only one generation removed from that. He didn't expect anything... So when you think of the things that our ancestors had to deal with and even stuff that my dad [dealt with], having someone call you the wrong name or touch your hair — it's not catastrophic by nature. It's annoying. I really did want to have a book where you could read it and relax and just kind of subtly point out things that we can all do to improve how these kids grow up.
On inspiring Black kids by depicting positive new narratives
You're trained in a lot of ways to be a second class citizen. Even taking my sons to the movies, whereas their white counterparts — if they wanted to see someone that looked like them — their parents took them to see Harry Potter and, you know, Percy Jackson. Our version was 12 Years a Slave and Harriet Tubman... There just aren't a lot of happy stories. Even when I was a kid, the show Good Times was very popular. But for a show called "good times," they never really had any good times.
... I have a teacher who emailed me [about how] all the kids were going around saying what they wanted to do when they grow up [and] a Black kid in class goes, "Well, if I live to be 18, I hope to... " So, I wanted to have a book where there is hope. In School Trip, which comes out in April, the kids go to Paris. And I'm already reading some early reviews [about how people] love the book...but occasionally someone will go "well I don't think the kids will be able to relate going to Paris... But [a] kid could relate to being a wizard like Harry Potter or going into space or going back in time or any of the other fantasy things. But a Black kid won't be able to relate to going to another country... If I wrote about a dystopian future where a 13-year-old white kid saves the world single handedly, that's relatable?
So, when I do new kid in class, not only am I doing this for kids to show that they do have hope and futures — but I also want to point out to parents and some of the teachers and librarians who put these emotional and mental shackles on their kids [thinking] 'I'm not even going to give them this book because [they'll] never be able to relate to going to Paris.' ...Why can't a kid have those kinds of aspirations where one day they're like, 'Oh, wow, I'd like to go there like Jordan Banks did' as opposed to, 'Hey, here's another gang book.' So what? I can relate to that, I can relate to being in a gang. I can relate to being enslaved... but it's such a discrepancy. ...They give them all these hard stories and then they forget that they're kids.
On representation in children and young adult books
When I do these [school visits] on zoom or in person, it's about me being a very reluctant reader. I hated reading books as a kid because — who were my heroes? The Black kid in Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn? There was no kid who looked like me that I was proud of. It was Black Panther ... which came out, what, five years ago, that was the first time where I had goosebumps. That and Into the Spider-verse. I felt like I was 10 years old. What I would have given to have something like that when I was ten.
But one of the big problems that I have is... [people saying], 'oh, well... you're making white kids feel bad.' A lot of these books — especially historical books — you'll have a book like Ruby Bridges, or stories where these 8-year-old kids are single-handedly integrating the school systems and there are people throwing stuff or cursing: So, those kids can handle that — but your little kid can't handle reading about that because it makes them feel bad? And I think most times kids empathize with the main characters. I don't think that kids ever empathize with the bullies. And if they do, I don't think that you're doing your job as a parent properly. Because when I read a graphic novel like El Deafo by Cece Bell, which is amazing, or Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett J. Krosoczka's book — these are all kids who are teased because they're different. And again, if you raise your kid to not be able to have empathy for the one who's the target of the bullies ... I have white kids dressing up like Jordan Banks and Drew for Halloween. It's one of their favorite characters, kids don't emulate the bad guys. And if they do, like I said, you might have missed a couple of parenting sessions that you probably should put in.
On who decides what is appropriate reading
I'm a parent... I do think that, as a parent, you have every right to decide what your kid can and cannot read... But you don't have the right to tell me what my kid can read. Because a lot of time kids will find themselves in books. They may not even be able to have [certain] discussions at home. I don't know what it's like at 12 years old to realize that I'm gay and I want to come out to my parents who are going to hate me and disown me because of that. But there are books with those characters that kids can find out that they're not the only ones.
Claire Murashima produced the broadcast version of this story. Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for the web.
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