I first saw Jerry Craft’s work illustrating the massively underappreciated Zero Degree Zombie Zone. Now he’s come out with his own graphic novel, which is receiving a lot of very deserved attention.
New Kid by Jerry Craft. HarperCollins Childrens, 2019.
Jordan Banks is just starting middle school at the prestigious, private Riverdale Academy Day School. He wanted to go to art school, but his mother is convinced that this school will give him the best possible start in life, even though there are very few other students of color. Those are the kids he first looks to for new friends, and sitting with them at lunch lets him observe how they are treated in general.
There are multiple microaggressions towards the students and teachers of color, such as the white boy who assumes that Ramon’s mom can make the best tacos, when he’s Nicaraguan and multiple white people not able to tell Black people – kids or adults – apart. The worst is a well-meaning white teacher who can’t remember Black kids’ names and think they’ll all be troublemakers like the one kid she had two years ago, confusing DeAndre and Drew.
At the same time, Jordan also has to work past his assumptions that other Black kids are the ones he’ll have most in common with. There’s also a nice plot line involving Alexandra, a shy white girl who always has a sock puppet on one hand that she uses to talk for her. Unsurprisingly, this makes it very hard for her to make friends. On the humorous side, there’s also a plot line involving the pink or “salmon” colored clothes that are – inexplicably to Jordan – popular among the boys at school.
The art here is top-notch – not just a pleasant accompaniment to the text, but conveying a lot of information. Every chapter starts off with a clever remake of a movie poster now starring Jordan and his friends – “Upper, Upper West Side Story” , “Jordan Banks: the Non-Winter Soldier”, “The Socky Horror Picture Show”. Some pages are pulled from Jordan’s own sketchbook, including a hilarious spread of zombie kids from different neighborhoods all headed to their respective schools.
In the main art, there’s an evocative scene where Jordan is trying to connect with fellow Black student Maury – first little Black angels appear over Jordan’s shoulders, only to fall away as the background turns black and Jordan and Maury are depicted on separate planets, completely failing to connect. I also really appreciated scenes from Jordan’s bus ride across multiple neighborhoods and the changes he has to make to his appearance and activity to fit in through all of them, starting off with hoodie up, sunglasses and earbuds in place and ending with hood down, accessories off, working on math homework.
I’ve focused a lot here on Jordan’s difficulties specifically as a Black student in a mostly white school. But there’s a lot of universal appeal here, as well – middle school is a tough time for everyone – and the humor is spot-on. My daughter read this book through daily for a couple of weeks, and even started to write a review of it to post here. I was interested to note that Jordan’s problems with prejudice didn’t feature in her review at all. She also didn’t know any of the original movies that the chapter headers are based on. Though I’m guessing she’ll get even more out of this as she gets older, this book gets very high marks from her. It would pair well with All’s Faire in Middle School or be a nice step up for notebook novel readers.