Class Act by Jerry Craft (2020)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jordan Banks and his classmates at Riverdale Academy Day School are in eighth grade now, no longer the babies of the school, but they’ve got a whole new set of problems to go with some continuing stressors from the year before.
Jordan’s feeling overlooked by Black schoolmates because his skin’s a lot lighter than theirs. He’s self-conscious about his fondness for comic books and drawing, worried they are signs he’s still a child. And the physical aspects of his adolescence don’t seem to have kicked in yet.
His best friends have issues too. Drew still won’t play basketball, his favorite sport, because he doesn’t want to be a stereotype. He’s become increasingly aware of the differences between his experience catching two buses to and from school every day, and some of his friends’ experiences, dropped off and picked up by drivers.
Jordan’s other best friend Liam’s parents never come to his soccer games, and their arguing at night makes it difficult for Liam to get sleep.
In Class Act, Jerry Craft tells the story of a school year, weaving young people’s social weirdness with their school’s awkward, sincere effort to improve multicultural understanding. The themes are heavy, but the storytelling is silly and fun, and Craft’s tone-setting illustration moves between dramatic, melodramatic, whimsical, and poignant as his story dictates.
There are smiles everywhere in this graphic novel, some of them right in your face as the artist parodies popular literature for young readers (including his own book!) or draws emojis next to characters’ faces to show their moods.
Some chuckles are subtler, and likely intended only for the grownups in his audience. In one panel, Jordan and his friends meet in front of an ice cream truck called EZ Like Sundae Mornin’, a visual gag unlikely to be appreciated by even forty-year-old readers, never mind middle-schoolers.
Teachers at RAD attend a conference held by the National Organization of Cultural Liaisons Understanding Equality with never a reference to an acronym. These little, silly touches are everywhere, and they make Class Act a joy to read.
Yet Craft doesn’t try to laugh everything away. When Jordan’s father is pulled over in his car by a white cop, it doesn’t matter if the officer is friendly and helpful. It’s a routine traffic stop for the officer, but there’s no such thing as a routine stop for someone like Jordan’s dad.
Craft’s New Kid won the Newbery Medal in 2020, and as I write this, the announcement for 2021’s recipient is two days away. It would be a first for a writer to win the award in consecutive years, but because Class Act is at least as good as its predecessor, a touching, thoughtful story right for its audience and time, it would be well deserved, and it wouldn’t be a shocker.