by Jerry Craft (2019)
Jerry Craft’s New Kid won the 2020 Newbery Medal. It’s the first graphic novel to be awarded juvenile literature’s most prestigious honor, so it’s worth checking out simply on these merits.
Told episodically over the course of a school year, New Kid is the story of Jordan, an African American teen sent to a private school by his mother, who works in the business world, and his father, who runs a community center. Jordan’s parents are fully aware that the adjustment is difficult for their middle-schooler, but they value his chance to attend a highly regarded institution, like any parents would, and they do their best to help him get through.
There are only a handful of Black students on campus, and they don’t necessarily become Jordan’s best buddies, even while they all experience seeming built-in microaggressions aimed at their otherness. One teacher never gets Jordan’s name right, a running gag through the novel, and a secret joke for Jordan and one of his Black classmates.
It isn’t only the color of Jordan’s skin that alienates him. He’s a teen, after all, so alienation is built right in. Add his newness and his desire to attend art school instead of college prep, and there is plenty of separation for Jordan everywhere he turns. One of the best things about the novel is an occasional excerpt from Jordan’s sketchbook, where we get a first-person glimpse at his subjective teen experience. They are hilarious and clever and add a dimension to the narrative you don’t often see in traditional prose.
I’ve spent my life adoring the Newbery, mostly as a reader but also as an educator. I wrote my Master’s thesis on it, and I therefore have all kinds of biases about what’s Newbery-worthy and what’s not. I sort of can’t help it: my favorite novel is a Newbery winner, and several other Newbery winners are among my most cherished books.
Graphic novels are a different kind of literature, and it’s silly to pretend they aren’t, with advantages over prose fiction and disadvantages too. I had to be won over the way I expect every book with the gold medallion on its cover to win me over, but I admit this one had a few additional speedbumps to get over, just because it’s the first of its kind.
It delivers. Hard. It’s engrossing, amusing, entertaining, contemporary, emotional, and loaded with attitude. Craft’s terrific illustrations guide the reader’s attention across the page like the best-crafted verbal narrative. The artist-writer tells you when to slow down, when to speed up, when to scrutinize little details, and when to take in everything at once. It’s beautiful and a total joy to read.