New Kid by Jerry Craft, 256 pp, RL 4
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Purchased at Target
Jordan Banks is starting seventh grade at a new school. But it's not the art school he wanted his parents to send him to. Instead, he has earned entrance and scholarships to the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School. Not only will he be one of the handful of black kids at is new school, Jordan will also have to commute from his home in Inwood to the swank neighborhood of Riverdale. Jordan's parents know that sending him to this school will teach him how to "play the game" and "open up new doors, colleges, networking . . . " as his mother argues, after reminding him of the shockingly small percentage of African Americans employed by one of the world's largest publishing companies where she works. There is pressure on Jordan to succeed at home and, as the weeks pass, at school as well. Jordan makes a few friends and makes some observations while also trying cope with microagressions from teachers and students and racism couched in "jokes" that come from a particularly obnoxious classmate. Jordan codeswitches constantly, between black and white, middle class and wealthy. Through it all, he draws comics in his sketchbook, working out his experiences through his art on the page.
Craft's graphic novel is fantastic on so many levels. As a story, it is on par with the standard bearer of realistic fiction in graphic novels - Raina Telgemeier. And it is SO amazing to have a real-life-boy-school-story graphic novel! Boys (at my school, anyway) have no problem reading Raina's books, and I love that they are experiencing life from the perspective of a girl when they do, but I am also happy for them to see their lives on the page in a format other than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. As a window into the experience of a person of color AND a person experiencing life outside his socioeconomic class, New Kid is superb. There are so many subtleties of Jordan's experiences at Riverdale that are made more immediately understandable to readers through Craft's visual storytelling skills. There are the teachers who call Jordan by the name of the other black kid at Riverdale, the students who assume he will go out for basketball and the teacher, Ms. Rawle, who makes Drew (one of the few African American students) apologize to Jordan for referring to him as "dawg" when pages earlier, two white students called each other "dawg" right in front of her. Even more painful, when Ms. Rawle finds and reads Jordan's sketchbook, she accuses him of being angry and creating a polemic against "everything this school stands for. And me!" Jordan tries to explain that his work is not an attack, it's his point of view - like an editorial cartoon, asking, "How can I be attacking the school if all this stuff really happened?" She tells him that, "being different is a blessing. It's what makes you special." With a spot-on response that I will never forget, Jordan asks Ms. Rawle, "Would you teach at a school in MY neighborhood? You know, so YOU could be SPECIAL?!"
The difference in socioeconomic classes between Jordan and his classmates is also handled very well by Craft. As a parent who has children in a similar situation, I found Craft's depictions vividly real. My husband and I work for public schools in a low-paying district where the poverty rate is around 75% and we send (and sacrifice, even with generous financial aid) our children to a private school where there are always Teslas (and not the affordable ones) belonging to parents AND students in the parking lot. Just like Jordan, my kids stay home (literally in the house, since my husband and I are usually working because our breaks never coincide) over school breaks while their classmates travel the world, often in their own family jet. And, like Jordan, my kids get opportunities to take school trips to third world countries to build schools, or to Switzerland to CERN to see their Large Hadron Collider, that we cannot afford to send them on, even with the reduction in costs for students receiving financial aid.
As another review said of New Kid, and it bears repeating, "An engrossing, humorous, and vitally important graphic novel that should be required reading in every middle school in America."