MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
It's time for another segment of NPR's Backseat Book Club in which we picked a book for young listeners, for families and classrooms to read together. The Book Club gives us the privilege of spending a lot of time with children's book authors, people who create entire imaginary worlds that help children navigate very real world challenges.
Our colleague Michele Norris tells us more about this month's author and his world.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: The author and illustrator, Jarrett Krosoczka, is only 35 years old and he's already published 20 books, including the popular "Lunch Lady" series. That's the Backseat Book Club pick for May.
He loves visiting classrooms, so we met him at a school near NPR here in D.C. He talked to kids there about writing. His message: Everyone is an author.
JARRETT KROSOCZKA: You know, when I look back at my career as an author, I don't look to the first book that was ever published as to where my career began. I look to the first book that I ever wrote. And the first book that I ever wrote, I wrote as a third grader.
'Cause, you see, an author is somebody who writes a story. It doesn't matter if you're a kid or if you're a grown-up. It doesn't matter if the book gets published and lots of people get to read it, or if you make just one copy and you share that book with one friend.
I mean, how many people here have ever written their own book before? Raise your hand, if you guys have. See, I hope you all realize that you guys are all authors, too.
NORRIS: As a parent it could be easy to dismiss the "Lunch Lady" books - they're graphic novels, so they kind of resemble comic books. And they're silly. The "Lunch Lady" is actually a secret superhero with all kinds of special cooking gadgets. Her spatula, for instance, spins into a helicopter.
But take the time to read these books and you'll see that the "Lunch Lady" is a subversive superhero. Her special power: Attracting reluctant readers.
Krosoczka faced an eager audience of third, fourth and fifth graders at Walker Jones Education campus, here in Washington, D.C. These kids learn in the shadow of the nation's Capitol. You can see the majestic dome blocks away through their window. Yet, the students live in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods.
The kids were curious about Jarrett Krosoczka's inspiration.
DAMIAN WILLIAMS: My name is Damian Williams and I'm in the third grade. My question is who is your favorite superhero?
KROSOCZKA: Who is my favorite superhero? Well, when I was a kid - when I was a teenager, if I couldn't get a ride to the comic book store, I would walk a mile and a half each way to get the latest issues of "Batman" and "Spider-Man" and "X-Men." I could not choose one over the other. Those three comics were just it.
Do you have a favorite superhero?
KROSOCZKA: Who is it?
WILLIAMS: Lunch Lady.
KROSOCZKA: Oh. Thanks, man.
KROSOCZKA: Now, here's five buck, man. Thank you.
NORRIS: And they also wanted to know about his life. They did their homework and they discovered that his childhood was rough, not exactly the stuff of fairy tales.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: How did it make you feel when your mother was doing drugs and when you didn't know your father?
KROSOCZKA: Sure, when I was a kid, it was tough for me. I lived with my mom for the first two years of my life. And so, suddenly she just wasn't there anymore and I didn't know why. And I never knew my father when I was really young. And I was raised by my grandparents and they were my parents - my grandparents, Joe and Shirley.
And it wasn't until I was a little bit older - maybe fifth or sixth grade - when my grandfather sat me down and he said, it's time that you know the truth about your mother and that she's been in jail. And she's been in halfway homes. And she's an addict. And that was a really tough pill to swallow. I was not expecting that.
But you see, my mother was a very talented artist. And when she was in jail, we'd write letters back and forth. That was pretty much the only form of communication we had. And she would draw me a picture of Snoopy. And I'd say OK. And she would request a cartoon character back. So I would draw her Garfield. And then I would request, say, the Pink Panther. So we would send letters back and forth, and we would draw each other cartoons.
And as I got older, I thought: Wow, she's so talented. And I said, I am going to make something really big happen with the same skills that was handed down to me from her, and then to her from my grandfather, Joe.
NORRIS: Krosoczka's grandparents gave him stability, art classes, unconditional love. And, along the way, he had teachers who nurtured his talent. Yet, every so often, Jarrett Krosoczka's past catches up with him. Now that he's a successful author, he says that's OK.
KROSOCZKA: I celebrated 10 years as a published author/illustrator at the Worcester Art Museum. And we showcased all the artwork from my books, and it was to promote a scholarship I created in honor of my grandparents, for kids in Worcester to take art classes for free.
And this woman came through the line with her children and she was very excited to see me. And I signed her books. It was a nice little moment. And then she walked about 10 feet away to chat with her friends. But she didn't realize she was standing next to my wife, Gina.
And she said to friends, you know, the last time I saw him I was his mother's parole officer. And I went by their house to check on them. And he was a baby crying in his crib by himself, with no one to care for him. But now he's here, signing books and celebrating 10 years as a published author.
And that's because, you know, I had grandparents who loved me, and because I had teachers who cared for me, and because I believe in myself and worked really hard. So it was a really special moment.
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NORRIS: And we have a special treat for our listeners this month. We have a video where Jarrett Krosoczka provides an art lesson, showing kids how to draw their own superheroes.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I like to draw because when I draw it expresses my feelings.
NORRIS: Visit NPR.org to meet Janitor Jack, Shark Boy and Swag Girl. And let your own imaginations run free.
Michele Norris, NPR News.
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SIEGEL: Next time, in our June installment, NPR's Backseat Book Club will introduce us to an amazing gorilla. He's the title character in "The One and Only Ivan," by Katherine Applegate. Ivan is a silverback who is the only gorilla living in a shopping mall. Luckily he has friends - an elephant, a dog and a young girl. But it's a newcomer, a baby elephant, who spurs Ivan into action.
So, families, classrooms, read "The One and Only Ivan." And be sure to send us your questions for the author to BackseatBookClub@NPR.org. Or tweet your questions to @nprbackseat.
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