TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is nominated for a National Book Award for his memoir, "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." It's a graphic memoir, which is to say it's a book of text and illustration, kind of like a comic geared to young adults. But I'm an adult adult, and I loved it. Jarrett J. Krosoczka was about to turn 3 when his grandparents insisted on taking legal custody of him because of his mother's heroin addiction and related problems that prevented her from taking care of him. She was in and out of rehab, with a stint in prison while he was growing up.
The book is written from the point of view of his 17-year-old self looking back on his childhood and teenage years. Krosoczka wasn't an athletic boy and wasn't good at socializing, so drawing was his refuge, his way of making friends and his way of dealing with life. Krosoczka is also known for his series of graphic novels for young people, including "Lunch Lady" and the "Platypus Police Squad" series as well as ARCs in the "Star Wars: Jedi Academy" series. He uses the middle initial J. - Jarrett J. Krosoczka - in his official author name as a tribute to his late grandfather, who was named Joseph.
Jarrett Krosoczka, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award.
JARRETT J KROSOCZKA: Thank you so much, Terry Gross.
GROSS: (Laughter) So did you go out of your way for many years not to tell people that your mother had been a heroin addict?
KROSOCZKA: Throughout my childhood, it's something I definitely kept hidden. When my grandparents finally told me, I was in the fourth grade. And I'll never forget sitting - they called me into the living room. And I remember thinking, oh, maybe we're going to go on another family vacation because the last time we had a family meeting, they told me we were going to Disney World, and it was fantastic. And my grandfather, he sat me down on the couch. And he said, it's time we tell you the truth about your mother. And she's in jail. And she's a drug addict. And that's - that's why she's been gone all this time.
Now, that was fourth grade. Now, she had been gone and in and out since I was 2 years old. So I didn't tell anybody for the longest time. I trusted one friend, my friend Patrick (ph), my best friend I grew up next door to. And I didn't tell anyone. I mean, it's - when you - when you have these addictions in your families, I mean, you sort of live this duality. You have this thing that you sort of hold back from people. And then you put your best face forward. You know, as I got older, sometimes I would share stories with people in high school somewhat. But it wasn't really until I delivered what I call an accidental TED Talk in 2012 that I shared that story more widely.
GROSS: But people must have asked you - kids must have asked you all the time, like, how come your grandparents are raising you? Where's your parents?
KROSOCZKA: They would. And I would just make up stories. Oh, my father, he travels a lot for business. Or, you know, I would just - you just find ways to sort of deflect - right? - to say... I mean, maybe that's where my storytelling skills began, by making up excuses for where my biological parents were.
GROSS: While your mother was in jail and halfway houses, your father, you didn't even know who he was.
KROSOCZKA: I didn't. I didn't learn his first name until I was in sixth grade.
GROSS: So you've written about your childhood and your mother in the form of a graphic memoir for young adults. Though, I'm an adult. And I really liked it. I would recommend this to adults. But why did you want to, like, target it to young adults?
KROSOCZKA: Well, you know, I've made a career out of writing and illustrating books for young people. You know, I have picture books. I have graphic novels for the middle-grade reader. Middle grade is, you know, 7 to 11 years old. And I knew I always wanted to share the story visually. Based on the intensity of the subject matter and my grandmother's salty language alone, I knew this needed to be for an older audience.
And I've always been obsessed with coming of age stories, that moment in a person's life where they decide who they want to be. Or the world is, you know, projecting them out into the world in such a way they say, OK, this is my path. And for me, that really was my senior year of high school. So many things were happening. Obviously, one gets their license. That's a big game changer. I met my father for the first time. Things came to a head with my mother. And I was, you know, leaving the home that I grew up in to pursue my dreams via art college.
So it seemed like a natural for me to tell that perspective from that 17-year-old self. The story is told through the perspective of the 17-year-old Jarrett. And, you know, it's funny. I didn't really think of it as a quote, unquote, you know, "grown-up book." But really a lot of grownups have been reading it and responding to it and identifying with it because, you know, addiction touches so, so many of us, either directly or just - we're just one degree away from it, it seems.
GROSS: So are there details about your mother that you felt were too upsetting to put in a book for young people?
KROSOCZKA: I've been working on this book in one way or another since the early, early 2000s. And every time I would sit down to write it, I would stop and hesitate because I would - I would worry to myself, what are people going to think? And at first it was, what are the people in the book going to think, you know, if I'm writing about them? And I would stop and hesitate. And then, as my career grew and I became known as the "Lunch Lady" guy - I have a series of graphic novels about a lunch lady who fights crime. And it's campy, and it's funny.
And I thought, wow, is this - is writing a book on this subject matter going to be in such contrast to those happy books that I would be putting my career on the line? But I - as I traveled the country and I met more and more and more young people who were dealing with this, I realized that there's a sort of a responsibility for me to write this book. I mean, you know, to go with the theme of comic books, with great power comes great responsibility. Now I have this audience of these kids who grew up with my books. I'm able to deliver the story in a very unique way. And I feel like I owe it to these readers to put myself out there. And I realized that if I was going to write memoir, I had to just write it without any inhibition.
And I wrote down the expression - and I'll censor this for the radio. But I said, write like you don't give an F. And not that I don't care about the craft or I care about the readers, but I can't worry about negative opinions. You know, I have to just write this and put it out there. So there are some things I learned about my mother later on in life. But I couldn't give some of that knowledge to that 17-year-old protagonist because that would have really affected his relationship with his mother.
And - but there is one particular scene - because I did have to explain how - really how my mother fully went away, you know, what would take this woman away from her 2-year-old, almost 3-year-old son. And this is something I learned as an adult. And I was able to find a way to share that in the story but not give that knowledge to the protagonist. And when I was - when I was a toddler, she was in a very abusive relationship. And her boyfriend at the time came home. And he and his colleague had a drug deal gone bad. And they had murdered somebody. And my mother helped them clean up and dispose of the evidence. And that's the big reason why she went away.
GROSS: Can you imagine how upsetting that would have been to you as a child?
KROSOCZKA: Oh, it was upsetting to me as an adult. I mean, I learned about it right before the birth of my first child.
KROSOCZKA: And so I kind of - you know what? Let me just mentally shelve that (laughter) so I can focus on being a dad to this human being that I don't know how to take care of. And then some years later, you know, when I was really digging and researching this book, I realized narratively, I have to explain to the readers fully why she is going away for so long. You know, you don't go away that long for shoplifting at the mall or for stealing batteries from a convenience store.
And I'll tell you. Like, you might be the sixth or seventh person I've ever said that out loud to, Terry. And I share that for those young readers out there who are dealing with heady issues at home. So it took a long time for me to gain that courage to make this book.
GROSS: Now I really understand why your grandparents insisted on getting legal custody of you because they were afraid you'd become a ward of the state.
KROSOCZKA: That's exactly it. That's exactly it. And they were - and they also were afraid I would get hurt. And what's interesting, too, is for - you know, I have a daughter. And she's - she's 9. She'll be 10 soon. And "Hey, Kiddo" has been the - sort of the forbidden fruit in our house. She's really wanted to read it.
GROSS: I was wondering about that, yeah.
KROSOCZKA: Yeah. And so, you know, imagine, OK, here - here's your family history too, you know, child. So I sat down with her. And I explained to her a lot of the aspects of this book before she would read it and also made sure she read it before the book was published so a classmate didn't come in and say, oh, I know this about your family, and she didn't.
And Zoe (ph) is so intuitive, and she has such a big heart. When she heard this story, she immediately said, well, she probably went along with it because she was maybe afraid that she would get murdered or maybe they would murder you as a baby as well.
GROSS: Wow. You know, one of the stories you tell in the book is that when you started living with your grandparents, you were shocked that they made breakfast for you because even before you were 3, when you were living with your mother, you'd wake up to an empty house and have to make your own breakfast.
KROSOCZKA: That's true. And I remember them telling me this. And, you know, again, sometimes things as an adult come at you. And you learn about these different aspects of your youth. And this isn't in the book because, again, this is something that I would have learned later. After my grandparents passed, I created an art scholarship in their name at the Worcester Art Museum where I attended classes. And to sort of kick-start this scholarship and let people know this was happening, I had an exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum, and it was also coincided with my 10-year anniversary of getting published.
And a woman came through the line with her children and they excitedly got their books signed. And after they got their books signed, they - you know, a couple of steps away, and they were chatting with their friends. They didn't realize they were within earshot of my wife, Gina. And this woman said, you know, the last time I saw him, he was a baby, and I was his mother's parole officer. And I went on the house to do a wellness check, and he was a baby crying alone in his crib by himself, no one else in the house.
KROSOCZKA: And there I was, you know, signing books. So it's wild. You know, there were certainly moments when, you know, I was in more physical jeopardy than I had ever realized. But thankfully I had - while I didn't have my birth parents to take care of me, I had other family members who took care of me as if they were my parents.
GROSS: All right, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jarrett J. Krosoczka. He's the author of the new graphic memoir "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who does picture books and graphic novels for young adults. His new book is a graphic memoir. It's called "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." His mother was a heroin addict. His grandparents took legal custody of him when he was turning three. And this is the story of his childhood.
So your grandparents sound like they were very loving toward you but that they had pretty gruff personalities, particularly your grandmother. I want you to describe how you draw your grandmother and how you draw your grandmother's cigarettes, which are typically hanging from her lips.
KROSOCZKA: (Laughter) Yes. My grandparents loved me so much. And you know, despite all of the trauma that I was surrounded by, their love floated me through life. And they're just about a decade gone now, and I still very much feel that love, and it very much keeps me afloat. They were tricky people, though, you know? They drank quite a bit. In fact, they were better when I was young than when my mother was young. They were - my grandmother could at times be violently drunk when she was younger.
I guess I could sum up my grandmother with this. I had come home from school, and somebody wronged me. And I'd tell the story about how this kid wronged me. She would take the cigarette out of her mouth and say, just tell him to go [expletive] in their hat.
KROSOCZKA: Now, at the time, I was in third grade. And it sounds like such this, like, Great Depression, World War II put-down. And here I am in the '80s.
KROSOCZKA: Am I going to go back to school and tell a kid that? They were so lovingly crass, though, you know? They'd curse around, but it was never directed towards me. And I remember they once said, like, you know, we're OK if you curse, but if you ever curse at us, you are in a significant amount of trouble, young man, you know? They smoked two packs a day each...
KROSOCZKA: ...Non-filtered, and my grandfather just bemoans this movement of having places be non-smoking. You know, airplanes - you can't smoke on the plane. Like, what an inconvenience to the point where he said, Jesus Christ, by the time I die, I'm going to get to heaven, and they're going to say, sorry, no smoking.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, he died of lung cancer.
KROSOCZKA: He died - yeah. He died - well, at 81, (laughter) so...
GROSS: OK. And he outlived your grandmother...
KROSOCZKA: By a couple of years.
GROSS: ...Who was also a heavy smoker, right.
KROSOCZKA: Who - also heavy smoker.
KROSOCZKA: And I should say, too, you know, she died the summer before my wedding. And unfortunately she died on a Friday. My wife's wedding shower was that Sunday. And in the months leading up to that, you know, my fiancee at the time, Gina, now my wife - she'd be over. And my grandmother was hooked up to oxygen, and we always had thought that she just had a bad bladder because she would always excuse herself to go to the bathroom. And Gina's like, you know she's smoking in there - right? - (laughter) with the oxygen around her nose.
GROSS: Oh, gosh, that's dangerous.
KROSOCZKA: It's so - we're so lucky the house didn't explode.
GROSS: Yeah. So do you think that your grandparents were different people when they were raising you than when they were raising your mother?
KROSOCZKA: I know they were. I know they - my grandmother and my mother did not get along. And I think a part of it was - my mother was their second child, their first daughter. And I really felt there was a lot of jealousy - or my mother felt this - that there was a lot of jealousy that my grandmother Shirley had for my mother, Leslie, because that took Joe's attention away. Joe and Leslie always had a tight bond. Shirley and Leslie's relationship was always fraught. Shirley was also drinking a lot then. She drank quite a bit when I was young, but she was never really drunk on weekdays, and she was drunk on weekdays quite a bit when my mother was young.
GROSS: You had recurring nightmares as a child about monsters. Would you describe the nightmare?
KROSOCZKA: I had this recurring dream where I was in the middle of a field, and on the outskirts of this field, you know, where there's forest - and these tall, lanky monsters like - almost like naked alien zombies would slowly come out. But if I made eye contact with the monsters, they would freeze. But the problem was I was surrounded by these monsters. And so while I would maintain eye contact to freeze one monster, the monsters to my back would approach me, so I'd have to spin around and make eye contact with those monsters. But that of course would free those other monsters, and they would start creeping. And every dream ended the same way in which they were just on top of me.
And I vividly remember those dreams. And yes, they're in the book. And those were difficult to draw because - you know, writing out scenes is one thing. I mean, you have a series of letters that make up words and make up sentences. But visually, they don't look like anything. But sketching out this book was difficult because then you're facing these fears. You're facing these nightmares. You're facing these people once again.
GROSS: When did they stop, these nightmares?
KROSOCZKA: Probably sometime just before high school, I imagine. I remember having them throughout elementary school. And it's - you know, the way I went to - I went to Gates Lane School in Worcester, Mass. And back then, it was kindergarten through eighth grade, so I was at the same school, same building for all those nine years.
GROSS: Your grandparents later told you that they'd often open up the bedroom door and find you sleeping right outside of it. Did you have anybody to talk to these nightmares about?
KROSOCZKA: No. No, I don't believe I ever spoke to anyone. The trouble is, you know, my grandparents grew up in the Great Depression. And they - you know, it wasn't the generation and they certainly weren't the kind of people who thought you should talk about your problems. I mean, therapy would have been significantly helpful for me as a kid. And I go to therapy now. And I'm open about that to help, you know, destigmatize seeing someone and just talking to somebody on a professional level. And that's where, for me, art was such a saving grace because I did work out some of these issues in my sketchbooks and in my drawings.
GROSS: When you took art classes when you were in high school at the Worcester Art Museum, and your grandfather paid for these classes because he knew how absorbed you were with your drawing, you were really proud to tell your teacher that you had read a book about how to draw like Marvel Comics. And your teacher did not have the reaction you expected. What did your teacher say?
KROSOCZKA: It was the best piece of advice any teacher has ever given me throughout my education. And I remember I brought in this book. I was so excited. You know, I thought I was going to get extra credit. I read the whole book. And without missing a beat, he wouldn't even let me finish my thought. His face turned just red. Like, he just looked - he had a grave look on his face. And his name is Mark Lynch (ph). And he said, forget everything you learned. And by that, what he meant was - I mean, that particular book really had, like, OK, this is the way - if you want to work for Marvel, this is how you have to draw a woman's lips. This is how you have to draw muscles. This is how you have to ink.
And so he, as an educator of the arts - and specifically, he was teaching comic book classes. You know, he would just see these young people judging their talent based on the kind of comics they were reading. So he really helped me realize that a comic doesn't need to be about superheroes. And it doesn't need to be drawn just the way the artists are drawing them professionally and in that moment. And back then - this was now the early mid-'90s - the thought of being a cartoonist - you really figured you'd have to go and work for somebody else and draw somebody else's character. So that advice by Mark Lynch really set me on this path of, oh, I could do my own thing and somehow carve out a nice, little life for me doing just what I want to do. That's a possibility.
GROSS: And he told you you had your own style and that you should develop that.
KROSOCZKA: He did. He absolutely did.
GROSS: But did you learn anything - nevertheless - from the Marvel Comics books...
KROSOCZKA: Oh, absolutely.
GROSS: ...That was, you know, from the how to draw like Marvel Comics that was actually useful for you?
KROSOCZKA: Certainly. There's a lot about gesture. So if you're having a character, say, throw a punch, you want to be extreme. You know, the punch is, like, really reeled back or the punch has been fully blown but not right in the middle. So - and it definitely had a lot of good points of, you know, framing your shot. You know, there's still a lot of value in that book. And I still have the book. But in regards to art style - and I think any sort of how-to-draw book, I think page one should be - you know, rule one is just have your own style (laughter). Don't - you know, ignore everything you're about to read.
GROSS: My guest is Jarrett J. Krosoczka. His new graphic memoir, "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction," is nominated for a National Book Award in the category of young people's literature. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who's nominated for a National Book Award for his new young adult graphic memoir, "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." He wrote and illustrated the book and others for children and young adults, including the "Lunch Lady" series and arcs in the "Star Wars: Jedi Academy" series. "Hey, Kiddo" is about his life as the child of a mother who was addicted to heroin. She was absent during most of his childhood because she was in and out of rehab and also did time in prison. Before he turned 3, his grandparents assumed legal custody. They raised him.
So let's get back to talking about your family. Your mother was a heroin addict. What age were you when you first visited her in a halfway house?
KROSOCZKA: I probably was in kindergarten. And I say that just based on the fact that I remember being super obsessed with "Smurfs." So I have photos of us visiting her at Christmas time. And I was getting - opening "Smurf" presents and stuff - and also based on my teeth. I mean, I'm - really looking back at my family photos and then looking at my children and where they are with losing and getting teeth to try to, like, pin down certain dates on how old I was at certain moments.
So you know, I came to live with my grandparents just before my third birthday, which was at Christmastime. They gained legal custody of me within that next year. And so there were probably a couple years where I just had zero contact with her as a very young child.
GROSS: What was your understanding when you visited her at the halfway house? Was it a halfway house or a rehab facility?
KROSOCZKA: I believe it was a halfway. It was a place - she did live there. It was the Spectrum House in Worcester.
KROSOCZKA: And what's interesting is some of - I just had a release party and a book signing for "Hey, Kiddo" in my hometown of Worcester. And some of her old counselors actually attended and identified themselves to me. So I was able to thank them for taking care of her back then.
GROSS: What did you learn about her from them?
KROSOCZKA: It was a very, very brief interaction. You know, I'm hoping to circle back and get in touch with them if they can share what they can share with me. But I just remember how thrilled and excited I was to see her. And then how devastated I was to separate from her - knowing that she wasn't coming home with us and knowing that I had no idea when I would see her next.
GROSS: Were you afraid that you'd be using drugs because your mother did and because your grandparents drank a lot? Like, how did that affect you when you got old enough to consider alcohol or drugs?
KROSOCZKA: Yeah, I - you know, I always feared that I would fall into that those same steps. So I was always very prudish about, you know, having a drink or anything like that. And I knew addiction was in the family. I knew it was hereditary. And I knew that it was dangerous territory to dabble in things.
So you know, come college - and I remember my freshman year of college, and I was at University of Hartford. I wasn't at Rhode Island School of Design just yet. I remember that you're suddenly given this freedom, and you're drinking all the time. And I remember sort of hitting a wall of like, whoa, like, I am drinking almost every single day. This isn't healthy. This isn't good. I need to get out of this situation because I don't want to fall into that same trap that my - both my birth parents had stuff and addictions, and there are addictions on both sides. So I was always very wary and very careful of that.
And, you know, so because of my mother - I mean, my mother was a very talented artist. And when she was incarcerated, she would send me letters, and she would draw cartoons for me. And a big part of how we communicated for many years was through art. So she would draw - say, she would draw me Snoopy. And then she would request maybe I draw her The Pink Panther. So then I would draw her The Pink Panther, and then I would write back and request Garfield.
And I remember as a very young person seeing how talented she was. But she had sort of squandered that talent because of the drugs. And that really was my driving force to want to get published. You know, I was submitting book proposals to publishers when I was a junior in college.
GROSS: So the first cartoon that you had published is when you were a freshman in high school.
KROSOCZKA: Oh, I love this story.
GROSS: And the school newspaper was having a theme for prom. So it was like a prom theme, and you submitted a prom cartoon that was published in the local Worcester newspaper The Telegram & Gazette.
KROSOCZKA: This was an editorial cartoon contest that was all across the city for high school students. And Mr. Shillelagh (ph) was so brave to submit this, you know, who taught at Holy Name Central Catholic High School. This comic of mine was chosen to be printed in the city paper. So, Terry, why don't you go? Read the first kid's line. I'll read the second kid's line.
GROSS: Hey, man, you got any protection?
KROSOCZKA: What kind - guns, knives or condoms?
GROSS: Yeah, that is so great and so amazing that they published that. You were a high school freshman. So was the local paper - that was the first place to publish any of your work. Was that the same paper in which your grandparents read that your mother had ODed and was found face down on the sidewalk?
KROSOCZKA: That's the same newspaper.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, she survived the OD, but it was, I'm sure, horrifying for the family to read about this in the newspaper. They probably didn't know before they read about it, right?
KROSOCZKA: They didn't. And that wasn't the first time they learned news about Leslie in the newspaper. I mean, that's something that happened quite frequently. And that's something that happened to me in my adult life. For the last few years of her life, really the only way I could keep track of her was to go to the Worcester Telegram's website and type in Krosoczka into the search field and find the latest court records.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jarrett J. Krosoczka. And he's the author of picture books, and he's the author of graphic novels for young readers. His new graphic memoir is for kids a little bit older - like, what age would you say?
KROSOCZKA: This book is young adults, so that would be 12 and up. But there are difficult truths in this book, but there are young people dealing with some difficult truths as well.
GROSS: Right. And it's called "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "STOMPIN' FOR MILL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jarrett J. Krosoczka. And his new graphic memoir is for young adults. It's called "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." His mother was a heroin addict. His grandparents gained legal custody of him when he was about to turn 3. He didn't even know who his father was until he was in high school. Krosoczka is also known for his series "Lunch Lady," which is being adapted into a film and The Platypus - what is it? - "The Platypus Police Squad"...
KROSOCZKA: That's it.
GROSS: ...And "Punk Farm," yes. So, you know, I should say your mother died of an overdose after you were married and had children. How did you find out about that?
KROSOCZKA: A phone call. So I had - well, I had initially learned about the fact that she was tripping up from her directly. I don't think she realized that she kind of let her secret out to me. But she had these new housemates that she knew from the clinic. And she did tell me that one summer, that one of her housemates had OD'd on heroin. And that to me was just all I needed to know because she really was a chameleon.
She had this great boyfriend for so many years. They were both clean and sober together. But when he died - and then she took care of my grandfather's son when then he died. And then she started to hang out with these other people. I just knew it was going to be a downward spiral. And when I saw her at a book event of mine, she had all of these track marks on the back of her hands and on her arm. And she blamed it on the dog jumping up on her, but I just knew. In my heart, I knew.
And shortly after my second child was born - this was December of 2011 - she started getting arrested again. And so in January of 2012, Holly, who is - she is my aunt by lineage but my sister by heart and soul - called me on the phone. And she said, did you see the paper today? I said, Holly (laughter), I live in Northampton. I live an hour from Worcester. No, I didn't see the paper. What happened? And my mother was arrested for expressing false prescriptions at pharmacies.
And I went in person to talk to my mother ahead of her court date. And she assured me that she was not using. She was just selling it to a guy to make extra money. And I said, well, that's really not going to convince me to bring my kids around here. And I really had to put some distance between us at that point. You know, I had a 3-year-old, a newborn, and they needed their dad. And I needed to be fully there for my children.
And so yeah, the way I would keep track of her is she would get arrested. And then get arrested for driving without a license. Or, you know, she would be driving, and the - a police officer would try to pull her over, and she would try to outrun them. She did spend a little bit of time in jail again. The last time I saw her was at a family funeral. And that this was - this would've been in spring of 2016. And we had a nice connection, you know? And she said, I love you, and I always will. And I said, Mom, I love you and I always will.
And, you know, you do - I would worry. I'd wake up in the middle of a night thinking, what if I'm wrong? What if she really isn't using, you know? But then I realized that she wasn't alone because she was with - she was surrounding herself with other people just - she wasn't making herself accessible to me. And, you know, I was - she knew I was writing what would become "Hey, Kiddo." And I was getting to the point where I thought, you know, I'm along in the editorial process where I'm really going to need to talk to her about what I'm writing about. And will she want her real name, or should I come up with a pseudonym, a stand-in?
And I received a phone call one night. It was March of 2017 at the end of the month. And it was her younger brother Steven (ph), and he informed me that she had died of a drug overdose. She had OD'd on heroin. And it was heartbreaking to be right. You know, and it affirmed for me what I - I did what I needed to do to protect my new young family.
And on Monday morning, I went into the funeral home. And Steven, who's - again, he's my uncle, but he's like my brother - met me there. And I don't know. I really had the feeling of, you know, she's going to be cremated, but I kind of want to see her one more time. And the funeral director pointed out like, well, look; you don't want to see her now. Like, I hadn't signed off to get the body to be transferred from the morgue to the funeral home. So I said you know what? Well, let's have a viewing. And I had in my mind that she would wear the dress she wore to my wedding.
And so I had in my mind that I would just turn up at her house. I would open the closet. And sure enough, there would be the dress. And so Steven accompanied me, and now it's - you know, it's the afternoon. And there's a man in the house. And she had claimed that was her sponsor. And I later learned that you typically would not have a sponsor of the opposite sex. And they certainly wouldn't be living with you. So later - I later came to learn that this man was her boyfriend.
And so he opened the door, and he was just completely out of his mind. I mean, he was high on heroin. His eyes were blood red. His skin was white as bone. He had a T-shirt, sweat pants, no socks or shoes on. And he's talking a mile a minute. And I'm still so tunnel visioned (ph) that I want to see my mom, make my mom beautiful again, that I entered the house.
And I went to her bedroom, couldn't find the dress. But then my glance went over to her bureau. And it was just filled with ugliness. It was filled with metal spoons and tourniquets and all of her drug paraphernalia. And so her boyfriend at the time said, oh, you know, well, there's a cedar closet in this other room. I said, oh, right, yeah, of course. A dress that was that important to her she would preserve in the cedar closet. So I stepped into the other room where the cedar closet is. And on a little nightstand, I saw a handgun. And then on the La-Z-Boy chair...
KROSOCZKA: ...I saw three handguns. And next to that was two handguns. And now I'm realizing I'm in a room filled with handguns with my back to someone who's high on heroin. And I said, this is exactly why I didn't come to visit my mom these last two years 'cause this is exactly what I feared I'd step into. So now I'm thinking, what have I done? What if I die here? My children need me.
So I made the boyfriend - like, I just need to be alone with my mother's things. Could you just give me a moment? So he moved. And, you know, as loud as I could, I said, well, Steven, you know, the dress isn't here. I'm just going to go to Macy's and buy her a dress. And he just looked at me. And he's like, you sure? We can keep looking. I was like, do you not see the guns? There's guns. We got to get out of here.
KROSOCZKA: You know, so very quickly, I said, OK, I need to get my baby albums. I need to get this photo album. I - OK, here's this painting I made for her. As quickly as I could, grabbing handfuls of things I wanted to hold onto in the event that the house blew up the next day.
KROSOCZKA: And so now I'm making preparations for my mother's memorial, and we didn't publicize the memorial. I didn't put it in the newspaper till afterwards. But now I'm really fearful this guy's going to turn up with guns. And so I hired security. But in the interim between that moment and the memorial, that boyfriend was arrested for impersonating a police officer. So he had shoplifted a number of items from a Walmart, like dog food, paper towels. And he brandished a gun and said, no, I'm with the police; I'm - it's good. And come to find out all of those handguns were BB guns made to look like real guns. And - but that didn't change how my heart was racing in that moment. So at her memorial, and even though - I mean, I was expecting there to be maybe 10 people there. But this funeral home was filled with cousins, my friends, you know, my aunts' friends, family friends who remembered the good parts of her.
GROSS: All right, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jarrett J. Krosoczka. He's the author of the new graphic memoir "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who does picture books and graphic novels for young adults. His new book is a graphic memoir. It's called "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." His mother was a heroin addict. His grandparents took legal custody of him when he was turning 3. And this is the story of his childhood.
So were you afraid at some point to have your children have any contact with your mother?
KROSOCZKA: Yes, and we had a game plan set, you know, even with the children's school. This is my mother, Leslie Krosoczka. If she turns up, do not let the children leave with her.
GROSS: That must have really hurt to have to leave that instruction.
KROSOCZKA: It did. It did. And, you know, there were moments where we had a game plan, where if my mother was to turn up at our doorstep unannounced, my wife would take the children upstairs, lock the door, and I would call the police just to have on hand in case something bad happened.
GROSS: You know, when you're writing from the point of view as a child in your graphic memoir "Hey, Kiddo," you confront your mother and say to her, you chose drugs over me. How do you see it now as an adult?
KROSOCZKA: Having seen the fact that she couldn't help herself to the very end - you know, the mindset has shifted some in that she did choose for whatever reason to use drugs. And she used at such an early age. So it's hard to - you know, how to judge...
GROSS: And she started when she was 13.
KROSOCZKA: Thirteen years old - you know, my grandparents got her her own place when she was 15, thinking that would solve the problem. Well, if you give a 15-year-old their own place, what's going to happen? She wasn't able to help herself at the very - throughout her life, she just kept going back to it. The one thing that I do still have a heavy heart for is she still was never able to take ownership.
So yes, she had a disease. And yes, she suffered from addiction. But she was never able to say, oh, yeah. Sorry about that (laughter), you know? She still - even as an adult, she'd say, you had everything you needed. Like, when are you just going to get over it? Sure, I had Nintendo, and I had all of these GI Joes and ThunderCat action figures. But I didn't have her. And that's - and the tough part really is knowing who she was and who - what her heart was, that she would have been such a good mother and such a great grandmother if she had the whereabouts to do that.
GROSS: Your grandparents weren't alive to see her overdose, right?
KROSOCZKA: Thank God no. They weren't there for the end. The last thing my grandfather saw was his daughter clean and tending to his every need as she - as he fell into dementia. So from my grandfather's living point of view, he saw his daughter be OK and step up. Both my grandparents saw me succeed in - with my books. They both saw me fall in love. They both met Gina. In fact, Gina wears Shirley's wedding ring. So when I explained to my grandparents that I was going to propose to her, my grandmother said, you know, did you still want that ring, meaning she - growing up, she'd always say, someday I'm going to give you this ring, and you can give that to the person you're going to get married to.
And so they both had the - in fact, (laughter) I actually said a little white lie to my grandfather on his deathbed because he was always concerned about my security, as - how am I going to support myself as an artist? So I had a number of things in development to be movies. And they had - you know, as it goes, they had fallen apart. And he really - you know, when you're talking to somebody when they're on their deathbed and they really seem like they're not there, you still talk to them. And so I explained to him that, you know, it really looks like this movie's going to get made. And he snapped out of whatever. And he's like, are you telling me the truth?
KROSOCZKA: And I said yes. And you know what? Maybe he knew in that moment I was lying. (Laughter) I don't know. But he just - they always wanted - he wanted to know that I was going to be OK. And regardless of my professional track, because of Gina, they knew that I'd be OK. They knew that she would be a good partner for me in life.
GROSS: When you were young, your mother used to say to you - about her addiction and about her not being with you - when are you going to get over it? And that's such a strange thing to say to a child. It's not something you ever get over. And also it puts the burden on you as a child to get over it rather than accepting the responsibility for the problem that she created for you, rather than accepting responsibility for her addiction and her inability to overcome it for any sustained period of time.
KROSOCZKA: Hey, welcome to being the child of an addict, I guess (laughter). Yeah. I mean, there are many times where I was like the older sibling. And in fact, sometimes my grandparents would refer to my mother as my sister, you know? And in some kind of weird way I was because while my mother was Joe and Shirl's second-oldest, I was also Joe and Shirl's youngest child.
GROSS: When you were a kid growing up, you thought you were the only kid who was being raised by grandparents and who had a parent who was addicted. And now you know that this is such an epidemic. There's so many parents who have addiction problems, and there's so many grandparents raising children. Does it make you feel less alone to know - and also more responsible for telling your story? But do you feel like - yeah?
KROSOCZKA: I feel both. I feel that responsibility, and I do feel less alone because it's not just kids too. I mean, there are other people my age, or younger or older, who will pull me aside and say, we had this in my family too. And I've come to recognize the looks that people will give me right before they are about to share information for me - with me.
And that typically happens now at a book signing where someone will come up with their book, and they'll explain who this book is for, and they'll be overcome with emotion. And I'm there for that, and I'm present for that. And, you know, they give me this grief, and I'm able to compartmentalize it and leave it there at the bookstore. So I do feel that response - and that sense of responsibility is what led me to really dig deep to make this graphic memoir.
GROSS: So are you still interested in superhero comics?
KROSOCZKA: Yes. You know, silly books are really important. You know, lighthearted books are also so important. I know I've written this heavy book. You know, it's getting a sticker on it because it's a finalist for the National Book Award. But, you know, I made a name for myself writing these silly "Lunch Lady" books and now also the "Jedi Academy" books. And there are lots of people who've come up to me to say, you know what? These books really helped save my kid because they needed an escape. And so those - you know the "Captain Underpants" and the "Wimpy Kid" books of the world, those books are so important to just offer some levity in a young person's life.
GROSS: It's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much, and good luck at the National Book Awards.
KROSOCZKA: Thank you. You know, I've got to say, I listen to this show so much, this feels like it was a "Choose Your Own Adventure" podcast.
KROSOCZKA: Like, I couldn't just say sit and draw and listen to you. I'm like, oh, wait. She's talking to me. Thank you.
GROSS: How are we going to end the adventure? By saying thank you to each other.
KROSOCZKA: Yeah. And then I'll say, it was really an honor. Thank you, Terry Gross.
GROSS: Until the next time, thank you. Jarrett J. Krosoczka is the author of the new graphic memoir, "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." The book is nominated for a national book award for young people's literature.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be the creator of the Netflix comedy series "Bojack Horseman," Raphael Bob-Waksberg. "Bojack" is an animated comedy with a cast of humans and talking animals with human characteristics. Bojack is a horse who's a depressed, alcoholic, sexist, former sitcom star. The series satirizes Hollywood and pop culture, and the new season is set in the era of the #MeToo movement. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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