Jerry Craft was intent on creating the kind of story he wished had been in his classroom while he was growing up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood - a positive tale featuring a Black protagonist that wasn’t, as he says, about “misery and history.”
His story about Jordan Banks, a Black student who transfers to a predominantly White private school - loosely inspired by the youthful experiences of Craft and his two sons, who are now both grown - was swiftly a hit. And for more than two years, Craft relished visiting classrooms and Zooming with students, without controversy.
Craft calls the response to his work “a lovefest,” as children gave him their drawings of the characters in his 2019 bestseller, “New Kid,” the first release in a three-book, graphic-novel series aimed at middle-grade readers. By early 2020, “New Kid” became the only book to rack up the Kirkus Prize, the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award.
But then, in late 2021, Craft got word: A school district in Katy, Tex., had pulled “New Kid” from circulation after a parent petition claimed that the book contained harmful content involving critical race theory. “New Kid” was reinstated after a 10-day review - when a committee found no inappropriate content - but not before Craft’s Zoom appearance there had been postponed. According to the PEN America organization, a nonprofit that defends free expression for authors, “New Kid” has also been challenged in at least two other Texas school districts, as well as districts in Florida and Pennsylvania.
And, more enduringly, Craft and his work joined the hundreds of other works challenged each year as potentially inappropriate amid the current culture wars. Craft says he would have preferred to receive attention for simply drawing a book that students have embraced. Instead, he and his titles - including his “New Kid” follow-up released this week, “School Trip” - have gained enough attention that by Thursday, he was a guest on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” on which he emphasized that the term “graphic novel” does not mean a novel with graphic content.
“You think that’s not real,” he said, “but there are people that think that, so they’re like: ‘I don’t want my kid to read a graphic novel.’”
Craft still speaks with a tone of disbelief over bans in the United States, while noting he has received no complaints from overseas readers. “I thought I was doing this book with a happy, Black family. There’s no slavery, no struggle for civil rights, no police brutality,” he told The Washington Post, adding: “To have it be as controversial as it’s been is just mind-boggling.”
So how did he respond to that first Texas case? “I had to Google ‘critical race theory,’” Craft said with a laugh during a Zoom call earlier this week from his home in Florida - another state where books aimed at young readers have become ongoing targets in cultural standoffs over what is appropriate to teach in schools.
As a parent himself, Craft says, he respects the right of parents to be involved in what their children read, but says that doesn’t grant the right to deny other children access to what age-appropriate books they might like.
Craft anticipates facing some heat as he goes on tour this month to promote “School Trip,” the third book in the “New Kid” series. Yet he says the strong response from schoolchildren - some of them so-called reluctant readers who are drawn to Craft’s textured mix of prose and pictures - inspires him to keep creating books and making visits.
The educational landscape that Craft encounters goes far beyond challenges to such widely popular graphic novels as “New Kid” and Raina Telgemeier’s “Drama.” According to the American Library Association, challenges to books in school libraries and public libraries have increased markedly since 2021 - nearly 1,300 instances last year, which was more than double the year before.
People often challenge books they find controversial “because they dispute the presentations around gender identity, sexual orientation, race and racism, and this rubric around what is claimed to be critical race theory,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Yet in truth, she notes, many of the titles are “simply books that elevate Black people, authors of color and elevate the voices of Black persons, or they offer alternative perspectives on our history of race and racism in the United States.”
The ALA director says that about 40 percent of the challenges are to “100 titles or more at one time” rather than an individual title challenged by a lone concerned parent. “What we’re seeing is political advocacy groups trying to suppress the voices of marginalized groups and prevent students the access to different viewpoints.”
Jeff Trexler, a lawyer who is interim director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, thinks that the challenges to Craft’s YA series - including “Class Act” - stem partly from people who aren’t versed in the nature of how to read graphic novels as a layered narrative rather than as isolated images. Trexler points to one scene in “New Kid” in which kids laugh at a group of “well-meaning liberals” who “bend over backward trying so hard to be sensitive.”
The scene is intended to be funny, Trexler says, noting that the pictorial humor could go over the heads of some offended adults. “There’s satiric discussion of complex social dynamics. . . . It’s a real work of literature. It’s a real work of art.”
Trexler says the “New Kid” case in Texas presaged “an explosion” in graphic novel challenges. One fan of Craft’s who was surprised by such blowback was Jeff Kinney, author and creator of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” publishing empire.
Kinney, who provided a blurb to “New Kid” and hosted an early Craft appearance at his Plainville, Mass., bookstore, says that Craft’s “rise as a children’s author has been meteoric, and it’s been so well-deserved.”
Craft, 60, toiled for decades in other areas of the industry before writing his own graphic novel. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts, his various jobs included working in the comic art department at King Features Syndicate, and he self-published his own comics for years, including the strip “Mama’s Boyz.” By 2014, though, he became inspired by such graphic novels as Telgemeier’s “Smile” and Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese.”
Publishers became interested once Craft pitched the idea of his experiences as a Black transfer student, which he envisioned as a warmhearted, humorous comic far different from all the books about slavery, the Civil War and civil rights that he was raised on - stories in which the Black experience was always intertwined with suffering. Which is why attempts to ban his books have blindsided him.
Craft aims to be inclusive in his “New Kid” series. He has added various characters after students asked him whether they might see themselves in his work. Plus, “Jordan is light-skinned - my complexion,” he says, while a character named Maury “has dark skin. I wanted to have many different types of African Americans to show that there’s no one way to be.”
Still, “I’m not Garry Trudeau - I’m not political,” Craft says, grinning at the irony of his situation while noting that he had no intention of stirring controversy. He even resisted all early-career attempts by editors who encouraged him to write with outrage. He refused “to do the ‘angry Black man’ thing,” he says, and pushed back against those who had urged him to put curse words in his comics. In terms of cartooning, he knew his natural voice was being the equivalent of a “clean comedian.”
That approach finally paid off. Kinney was among those early fans who found “New Kid” to be “funny, fresh, and much-needed.” Which is why he was stunned by the Texas case, too. “When I first heard that ‘New Kid’ was being challenged, I was shocked and dismayed,” says Kinney, who offered to do an event with Craft in support.
“But Jerry and his publisher decided to handle it in a different way, which I respect,” Kinney says. “It turns out book banning is contagious, and before long, ‘New Kid’ was being challenged or banned all over the country. . . . It speaks to the despicable moment that our country is living through that a book as wholesome and humorous as ‘New Kid’ is being taken off shelves, for no other reason than the characters it features are non-White. It’s vitally important for kids of every type to be able to see themselves as protagonists of books. The harm done to a child who’s not being reflected in literature is self-evident.”
As “School Trip” makes its debut, Kinney says that “the reflexive, ignorant-minded banning of books” angers him. He also admires Craft’s mind-set.
“Jerry’s decided to take the high road and to be a positive force and a voice of reason,” Kinney says. “His books are a reflection of his character - warm, kind, gentle, curious and funny. We need more authors like Jerry Craft, and more books like ‘New Kid.’”
On Thursday, Craft visited Eliot-Hine Middle School in the District as part of his tour. He says that one young fan approached him with a request. He made Craft promise that “I won’t stop doing what I’m doing.”