Today, author and illustrator Jerry Craft joins us in The Reading Realm to talk to Richard Ruddick about his new middle grade graphic novel called New Kid…
Without giving too much away, can you describe your new graphic novel New Kid to our readers?
Sure, New Kid is loosely based on my life, as well as those of my two sons. It follows 12-year-old Jordan Banks who wants to go to art school, but his parents don’t think that he’ll be able to make a living as an artist. So they send him to a prestigious private school in Riverdale where he is now one of the few kids of color.
You’ve said yourself you weren’t really a book reader – what is it about comics that appealed to you? How do you think the medium entices readers in, particularly those who aren’t confident or fond of reading?
The biggest thing was probably the pictures. I COULD read, I just didn’t enjoy it, so it was difficult to open up any book and just see pages and pages of text. Plus, the more that my teachers told me that comics would rot my brain, the more I thought that reading had to be a chore and not something that was ever supposed to be fun. Plus, as an African-American boy, there were so few books where there were kids who looked like me who weren’t completely miserable. What I would have given to have a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” or “Percy Jackson,” featuring kids of color. So that was my goal with New Kid. Because I didn’t have those books, I went straight to Spider-Man!
What inspired you to transition into the world of comics after so long working in the advertising sector?
Even when I was working in advertising, I continued to draw. But in the late 1990s, the advertising world basically collapsed. So needing a job, I was lucky enough to find a woman named Barbara Slate, who was looking for an assistant to work on her comics. And that’s what really reset my career. From there, I moved on to work at King Features, which is a comic strip syndicate. I learned a lot there and met some really great cartoonists.
How much of your own experience did you draw upon when writing New Kid?
A lot. Jordan Banks looks a bit like me. An African-American boy with light skin and straight hair. So no matter where I went, I never really looked like I belonged. Also, his desire to be an artist, which, obviously, was also mine. Jordan also lives in the Brownstone where I grew up, and commutes each day from Washington Heights to go to a private school in Riverdale. But a lot of the microaggressions and fashions and other nuances came from my sons’ experiences.
In the story Jordan struggles to find a teacher who can appreciate his passion for comic style art. Did you go through a similar struggle yourself when you were younger or did you have someone encouraging you/inspiring you along the way?
The only adult who really encouraged me to draw was my Dad. But once again, I’m not sure he thought that anyone could make a living from it.
Obviously, diversity is a huge focus in New Kid. Do you think enough is done in the education system to teach people about the importance of it?
No, not really. I think we still believe in the whole melting pot idea, where everyone gets melted down and reshaped into the same kid. I once heard someone use the idea of a salad, where lettuce gets to be lettuce, and the same for cucumbers, carrots… but together they make something wonderful while still maintaining their own identity.
Also, in my entire school life of nursery through college, I think I only ever had one black male teacher. I think many school systems still underestimate the importance of seeing someone like themselves.
You’re co-founder of the Schomburg’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem. What are your future goals and aims for the festival?
Yes, I’m one of four co-founders of an event that initially drew about 1,500 people, to one that now draws around 12,000, with fans and creators coming from all over the country as well as Canada. I’ve stepped back recently now that I know it’s in good hands, and to be able to focus on the deadlines and travel that come along with New Kid. Especially since I get to do two more New Kid books!
I have several incredibly passionate artists in my class who love getting the chance to create their own comics. What advice would you offer to aspiring authors and illustrators about pursuing a career in comics and graphic novels?
So many kids, especially kids of color, are completely obsessed with anime and manga, which is great, BUT it would also be amazing if they took the time to create their own styles and talk about their own lives. Also, so many young artists don’t like to take criticism, they just want to hear how amazing they are. So as a result, some of them never improve. I feel like I’m constantly getting better, even at my age, because that is my goal. Not that you have to listen to everyone, but at least keep and open mind. And finally, if something is difficult, keep drawing until you do it well. So many kids hate drawing things like hands, so they’ll just have all of their characters keep their hands in their pockets.
Finally, can you describe New Kid in three words?
Funny. Biting. Heartwarming.