Jarrett J. Krosoczka: How Can Mentors Turn An Uncertain Journey Into A Heroic One? Jarrett J. Krosoczka is a successful author and illustrator. But, he says, his life could have gone in a completely different direction, if he hadn't had a long line of mentors.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka: How Can Mentors Turn An Uncertain Journey Into A Heroic One?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, the hero's journey. We're hearing from TED speakers whose stories echo a pattern of events identified by Joseph Campbell and found in so many other stories from "The Odyssey" to "Lord Of The Rings." And one thing common in so many heroes' journeys is a mentor, you know, like a Yoda.


MARK HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) I'm not looking for a friend. I'm looking for a Jedi Master.

FRANK OZ: (As Yoda) Oh, Jedi master? Yoda. You seek Yoda.

HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) You know him?

JARRETT KROSOCZKA: When I think of the word mentor, I think about somebody who has traveled a little further down the road in life. And a good mentor doesn't just give you the answers that you need but gives you the tools that you require to answer those questions for yourself.

RAZ: This is Jarrett Krosoczka. He's an author and illustrator of kids' books.

KROSOCZKA: The graphic novel series that I'm most known for is about a lunch lady who fights crime.

RAZ: Jarrett's also written books about a platypus police squad, a purple elephant named Ollie and bubble bath pirates. And when his first children's book was published, it wasn't just a success for Jarrett but for all the mentors he had along the way.

KROSOCZKA: My friend described my first book signing as a wake, but happy.

RAZ: Yeah.

KROSOCZKA: Because there was, like, this huge long, line of everybody I ever knew in my life all there to celebrate the publication of that first book. And my first grade teacher, Mrs. Alisch (ph), she stormed in and she cut in front of the line, she gave me this huge kiss and she turned to the crowd and she put one finger in the air and she said, I taught him how to read. And everybody gave her this huge round of applause. It was just this beautiful moment.

RAZ: Jarrett was really lucky to have teachers like that because his life could have gone in a totally different direction, as he explained on the TED stage.


KROSOCZKA: When I was a kid, I loved to draw. And the most talented artist I knew was my mother. But my mother was addicted to heroin. And when your parent is a drug addict, it's kind of like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football because as much as you want to love on that person, as much as you want to receive love from that person, every time you open your heart you end up on your back. So throughout my childhood, my mother was incarcerated. And I didn't have my father because I didn't even learn his first name until I was in the sixth grade.

But I had my grandparents, who adopted me just before my third birthday. My grandfather was a self-made man. He ran and worked in a factory. My grandmother was a homemaker. But here was this kid who loved Transformers and Snoopy and the Ninja Turtles. And the characters that I read about, I fell in love with, and they became my friends. So my best friends in life were the characters I read about in books.

When I was in the third grade, a monumental event happened - an author visited our school. Jack Gantos, a published author of books, came to talk to us about what he did for a living. And afterwards, we all went back to our classrooms and we drew our own renditions of his main character, Rotten Ralph. And suddenly, the author appeared in our doorway. And I remember him sort of sauntering down the aisles, going from kid to kid, looking at the desk, not saying a word. But he stopped next to my desk. And he tapped on my desk and he said, nice cat.


KROSOCZKA: And he just said those two simple words, nice cat. And it made a huge difference for me. It filled me up with confidence, it validated what I was doing. I mean, you know, this was a professional.

RAZ: Yeah, it was like that moment - I mean, that happened when you were really little, and you remember that moment. It was so profound.

KROSOCZKA: Yeah, I was 8 years old. And that's the amazing thing is that you just never know what words that you give children will resonate. And it could be something just as offhand as nice cat.


KROSOCZKA: Now, when I was in sixth grade, the public funding all but eliminated the arts budgets in the Worcester public school system. And my grandfather, he was a wise man, and he saw that as a problem because he knew that was, like, the one thing I had. I didn't play sports. I had art. So he walked into my room one evening and he sat on the edge of my bed and he said, Jarrett, it's up to you, but if you'd like to, we'd like to send you to the classes at the Worcester Art Museum. And I was so thrilled. So from sixth through 12th grade, once, twice, sometimes three times a week, I would take classes at the Art Museum. And I was surrounded by other kids who loved to draw, other kids who shared a similar passion.

RAZ: Jarrett really loved being in those art classes. But the rest of the time he was in his regular high school, where it was harder to make friends. So to make his classmates laugh, he would draw these funny pictures of his teachers.


KROSOCZKA: Well, in English class in ninth grade, my friend John, who was sitting next to me, laughed a little bit too hard. And Mr. Greenwood (ph) was not pleased.


KROSOCZKA: He instantly saw that I was the cause of the commotion. And for the first time in my life, I was sent to the hall. And I thought, oh no, I'm doomed. And he came out into the hallway and he said, let me see the paper. And I thought, oh no. And so I took this picture and I hand it to him. And he said to me, you're really talented.


KROSOCZKA: You're really good. You know, the school newspaper needs a new cartoonist, and you should be the cartoonist. Just stop drawing in my class.


KROSOCZKA: I was introduced to Mrs. Casey (ph), who ran the school newspaper. And I was, for three and a half years, the cartoonist for my school paper.

So Mrs. Casey was never my classroom teacher, but she saw that I got hooked from the feedback and the energy that came into having something in print. I mean, that really fed my desire to someday get published.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, when you think about having come from where you came from and, like, having the deck sort of stacked against you, I mean, could you have made it without those mentors along that path?

KROSOCZKA: There's no way. There's no way I'd be doing what I am doing today if it weren't for those mentors. I mean, they validated what I loved to do, and what I loved to do was such an odd and unique thing. These mentors, too, were not only celebrating who I was as an individual, but giving me the tools I needed to celebrate who I was as an individual as well.


KROSOCZKA: I graduated from RISD. My grandparents were very proud. And I moved to Boston, and I set up shop. I set up a studio and I tried to get published. I would send out my books. I would send out hundreds of postcards to editors and art directors, but they would go unanswered. Now, I used to work the weekends at the Hole in the Wall off-season programming to make some extra money as I was trying to get my feet off the ground. And I - this kid who was just this really hyper kid, I started calling him monkey boy.

And I went home and I wrote a book called "Good Night, Monkey Boy," and I sent out one last batch of postcards. And I received an email with the subject line nice work, exclamation point. Dear Jared, I received your postcard. I liked your art. Please let me know if you're ever in New York City. And this was from an editor at Random House Children's Books. So the next week, I happened to be in New York.


KROSOCZKA: And I met with this editor, and I left New York for a contract for my first book, "Good Night, Monkey Boy," which was published on June 12, 2001.

RAZ: Listening to your story, it's sort of clear that the idea of being mentored can be a fleeting moment. Like, it can be that book author who says nice cat or the teacher who catches you drawing in class and says, you're really good. You should be a cartoonist. You know, like, it doesn't have to be kind of a lifelong relationship. It could just be a moment. But that moment could be incredibly important.

KROSOCZKA: Yeah. You know, Jack did not say nice cat thinking, watch this, I'm going to change this kid's life. And now when I visit schools I do - I think about that. And, you know, sometimes a young student will come over to show me some artwork or - and I revel in getting to say nice lunch lady to these kids.

You know, Luke Skywalker spent all of that time with Yoda. But maybe there was somebody in passing that said something to Luke at Tatooine when he was much younger that also sent him in that direction. Let's find out that person's story. Who said nice cat to Luke Skywalker? I want to know their story.

RAZ: Jarrett Krosoczka. He's the author of many, many children's books. You should check them out. They're great. You can also watch his full talk at ted.com.

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