Sunday, May 17, 2020

New Kid

New Kid
by Jerry Craft
Recommended Ages: 12+

Jordan lives in a New York City neighborhood described as "South Uptown." He has a hard time fitting in, partly because he's lighter skinned than most of the kids in the neighborhood, but mostly because his parents just put him in the elite Riverdale Academy, where anyone who isn't white sticks out. He would rather go to art school, but meantime he channels his awkward experiences at Riverdale into a comic book-styled journal – recording all the times his homeroom teacher mistakes him for another black kid, the challenges of making connections with students of every color and economic class, encounters with a weird girl who talks through a puppet, embarrassment on the ball field, doubts about modern art, and dealing with a kid who, if not exactly a bully, is at least hard to put up with.

Sometimes he channels his anxieties into humor and creativity. Sometimes, it comes out in the open as thought-provoking debates (for example, with that homeroom teacher). Gradually, he grows from being the kid who just doesn't belong anywhere to a young man who carries himself with confidence. The process is fun to witness, and while it does include a daily struggle to project the right image from one end of his bus ride to the other – subtly changing his costume and posture to transform himself from "somebody not to be messed with" to "totally non-threatening young scholar" and back – it pointedly puts distance between Jordan's reality and the gritty "realism" of books popularly associated with growing up black in the big city. (One of those books becomes a running joke during Jordan's first year at RAD.) In fact, both Jordan and his reader may notice at about the same time that real life is much more diverse and full of the unexpected than the popular stories going around.

This book won both a Coretta Scott King Award (for outstanding work by an African American writer) and a Newbery Medal. It was only the second book to win both awards, and the first graphic novel ever to do the latter. Craft is also known for co-writing the anti-bullying book The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention with his two sons, for illustrating Patrik Henry Bass's The Zero Degree Zombie Zone and for creating the syndicated comic strip Mama's Boyz. Its dramatic impact doesn't kick you in the throat; it doesn't leave you crying or gasping with laughter or roaring with triumph, or whatever. But it does follow an appealing character's personal growth during one pivotal year, and shows a possible way a bright youngster with a relatively good attitude can bridge the gap between where he came from and where he's going. While taking a gentle poke at too-self-conscious political correctness, it also adds understanding and tact to the thought-world of readers who come to it with an open mind.

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