Banned Books: Author Jerry Craft on 'New Kid' Jerry Craft published the Newbury award-winning graphic novel New Kid in 2019. The novel focuses on the experience of being Black and the "new kid" at a predominantly white school.

Banned Books: Author Jerry Craft on telling stories all kids can identify with

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A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In the graphic novel "New Kid," writer and cartoonist Jerry Craft tells a story of Black seventh-grader Jordan Banks. He's the new kid, finding his way at an elite private school that's predominantly white. "New Kid" has received numerous honors. It has also been challenged in a Texas school district, with a parent complaining that the content promotes critical race theory or, in other words, calls out institutional racism. Craft hopes readers see themselves in his books "New Kid" and "Class Act." And he told me that his character Jordan Banks is partly based on himself.

JERRY CRAFT: He loves, loves, loves to draw, as did I. He wanted to go to art school, as did I. His mom and dad didn't want him to go to art school because the only term that they had ever heard, like my parents, with artist was starving - starving artist. So they sent him to the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School, where they think that he can get an education and get a real job and not, you know, be a cartoonist when he grows up, which was my parents' hope. You know, sorry I disappointed them.

(LAUGHTER)

CRAFT: But, you know, he has a very innocent view of the world.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And in the book, Jordan pretty much experiences all the stereotypes that I think some kids really do. I mean, there's - he's being asked what sport he plays, a girl saying that this - that new kid is kind of cool yet so nonthreatening. I mean, that's some pretty intense stuff for a 12-year-old to deal with.

CRAFT: Well, you know, it is, but it isn't because what I wanted to do - like, in my opinion, a lot of the books with African American protagonists have some - like, there's this really big thing that happens, you know, a life-changing event, you know, catastrophic and, you know, 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. And you get so used to it, you know, just having someone call you the wrong name or, you know, touch your hair. It's not catastrophic by nature. It's annoying, you know? But - so like I said, I really did want to have a book where you could read it and relax and just kind of subtly point out things that, you know, we can all do to improve how these kids grow up.

MARTÍNEZ: So in place of that tragic, catastrophic event that changes someone from that day forward, these little things that sometimes maybe a kid like Jordan at 12 years old maybe doesn't quite understand or maybe does understand - but those are these kind of things that build up and add up and shape the adult that some kids like Jordan become.

CRAFT: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, when you're sitting around a group of kids and they are talking about, you know, the TV shows they watch or the music that they listen to, and you're kind of always on the outside, or, you know, when they learn their first racist jokes from their parents and they're like, hey, you know, Jerry, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and it's like - and then they all laugh. And it's like, yeah, that's not really funny. And they think that they're joking. But when you hear that over and over and over again, by the time you're in your 30s or your 40s, if you don't have things that can counteract that, you - you know, you're trained in a lot of ways to be a second-class citizen.

You know, even taking my sons to the movies - whereas, you know, 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" - and, you know, our versions was "12 Years A Slave" and "Harriet Tubman" and - you know what I mean? Like, there just aren't a lot of happy stories. You have no aspirations. And I have a teacher who emailed me, and, you know, all the kids were going around saying what they wanted to do when they grow up, and the Black kid in the class goes, well, if I live to be 18, I hope to do blah, blah, blah.

MARTÍNEZ: If I live to be 18.

CRAFT: If I live to be 18, right. So I wanted to have a book where there is hope.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. I mean, so "New Kid" and "Class Act" - they just sound like coming-of-age stories. I mean, it's - you know, you're writing about a lot of the experiences that you had as a kid, but that's what it basically comes down to. Now, you know, Jordan Banks is a very specific kid, and these are his specific experiences. But, you know, I want to know, Jerry, like, what was your understanding, then, about what caused people to call for the banning of your book. What - was there a specific example in the book, anything, like, they could point to say that - that's why it should be banned?

CRAFT: No, because when I - well, first of all, when I heard that it was banned, I - you know, I tried to research it, and I found that it was being banned because it teaches critical race theory. So I - my first step was to Google critical race theory because at the time, I...

MARTÍNEZ: Wait. You didn't know what it was.

CRAFT: No. I had no idea what it was. And then they start lobbing terms like Marxism. And I'm like, how is it Marxism, you know? They just - they get these terms, and they've not even read the book because when they pulled it from the school system in Katy, Texas, they did the review, and then the adults who actually read the book - they were like, there was nothing wrong with this, you know? But they had already canceled my school visit, and they took the books off the shelf. And when they read it, they immediately put it back on the shelf. They apologized, and they said, we would love it if you would, you know, reschedule your school visit, which I did because, at the end of the day, it's the kids, you know, who would be missing out.

MARTÍNEZ: Once the book was banned, then it was reviewed, then it was not banned and you went through all of these ups and downs of being criticized for things that maybe weren't really in the book, I'm wondering if, at all, you, as a writer, maybe took a step back to kind of analyze your writing or your approach telling stories. Did any of that maybe change anything in your process?

CRAFT: Well, you know, I did think about it. And at the end of the day, I realized that if I started to censor myself, then they've won. Like, this is what they wanted me to do, is to not have these books where kids of color are just equal to their white counterparts. You know, that was all I wanted to do. So now in "School Trip" where everyone goes to Paris, all the kids are the new kids. So they're equally uncomfortable because they don't speak the language. And so, you know, there are things that I did specifically put in to talk about book banning because I'm not going to shy away from it.

MARTÍNEZ: That's the author Jerry Craft. His next graphic novel, "School Trip," comes out in April.

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