2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. In honor of this momentous event, I launched a project to read through each award-winner, starting with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 2020 recipient: New Kid by Jerry Craft.
Winner: New Kid by Jerry Craft (Harper)
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, ill. by Kadir Nelson (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker, ill. by Junyi Wu (Holt/Macmillan)
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster/a Caitlyn Dlouhy Book)
Members of the 2020 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Krishna Grady; K.C. Boyd; Julia Casas-Rose; Dr. Alpha DeLap; Jenna Friebel; Christopher Lassen; Dennis LeLoup; Eileen Makoff; Dr. Petros Panaou; Deanna Romriell; Karen Scott; Soraya Silverman-Montano; Mary R. Voors; Beatriz Pascual Wallace; and Sandy Wee.
At the end of January 2020, very few people in the country could have predicted the near future of lockdowns and loss. Few could foresee the months of fear and frustration on the horizon, but many (including me!) accurately predicted the winner of the 2020 Newbery Medal. SLJ's Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Committee picked it. So did mock Newbery participants at libraries across the country. In my original post on New Kid, I explained the complications around why graphic novels faced an uphill battle for the Medal. It centers around language in the original criteria, language that reflected publishing in a time when the text was what mattered and the illustrations were merely decorative. But now, the form has evolved, and thankfully, the selection committee has begun to realize that honoring a book means honoring the whole book, for even a "traditional" book is the product of artful collaboration across multiple creators, editors, and designers. Now, graduate schools in library and information sciences include whole courses on the graphic format, often using Jerry Craft's New Kid as a foundational text.
When Frederic Melcher originally proposed the Newbery Medal, he envisioned a complex web of symbiotic relationships between publishers, booksellers, librarians, and writers -- all working together to increase the excellence on offer to young readers. He suggested the medal as a way to encourage the best writers of a generation to write for children, to strengthen the market for children's books, thus making it a profitable venture for those most talented of creators. And it worked. Fewer than 10 years after the medal was established, the number of titles published for children had increased more than 25%. In a letter Melcher wrote to librarian Clara Whitehill Hunt, he explained that what he hoped the medal would reward was
genius giving of its best to the child.
And that's exactly what Jerry Craft offers with New Kid. His book shows him to be one of those remarkable creators with access to the discipline and daring that comes across as genius. As I wrote in my original post:
The New Kid here is seventh-grader Jordan Banks, starting at a swanky new private school instead of the art school he'd been hoping for. His parents want him to give it a try, even though they are not blind to the challenges he will likely face. And face them he does. But not at all in the tired ways you might be imagining. Yes, there are issues of race and class, and Craft has mastered the art of handling a difficult subject with just the right weight. Not too light, but not so heavy as to feel unreal. Most kids experience difficult things, and most kids also laugh and draw and play video games with friends and crack terrible jokes. Both are true.
Like a chemist, Craft has mixed the humor with the hard parts, combining moments of social commentary with online gaming sessions between friends. With a deft hand and an eye toward the reader's experience, Craft gives kids a book that meets them right where they are.
That's the thing about what's here: there are plenty of clever elements that will go right over a young reader's head. But the writing is complete and the story so captivating that even if you don't pick up on every joke or understand every reference, you'll cheer for Jordan Banks as he makes his way through seventh grade. Reading New Kid again recently, I was struck by how much craft (pun intended!) went into this book. From the first two-page spread to the final panel, New Kid wears the mark of careful attention and rewards those readers who offer it the same.
In that opening spread, Jordan is pictured against the backdrop of a starry sky, as though he is falling into the cold, dark abyss of the uncharted universe. The accompanying text boxes introduce us to his voice:
This is how I feel every single day of my life, like I'm falling without a parachute. I mean, I'm not really falling. That's called a metaphor. I learned about them in English. When I was younger I used to wish I was Superman. So instead of falling, I could fly. But now that I'm twelve, I realize just how silly that was.
Throughout the book, Jordan brings up that lesson on metaphor every so often, something that likely irks teachers and writers everywhere. I know I cringed a little every time it happened. But then, in the final panel, Craft shows his readers he was always in control, happy to let that joke run long, waiting until the last panel to hit with the punchline.
At the top of the page, Jordan says his old friends are like training wheels, and once again explains
That's a metaphor. I learned about them in English.
His friends' response?
Actually, Jordan, that's a simile. Yeah, c'mon, "Private School." Everybody knows that!
All at once, those of us who thought we were wiser than Jerry and his editors, those of us who cringed at the incorrect information being thrown at these young readers, we are there in Jordan's shoes, thinking we know more than others, requiring a gentle dose of humility. In interviews, Craft has discussed the way he kept tinkering with this book, revising and adding new layers of humor or insight at every iteration. Like the long joke, there are countless elements that demonstrate the creative control he exercised, proving him to be an ideal recipient for the first Newbery Medal granted to a graphic novel.
As I read across this century of books, I can't help but wonder what scholars and critics will think of New Kid in the future. What will they make of the collective resistance to this form? Will they agree or find it foolish to reward the graphic novel format? Will the timely references and of-the-moment jokes feel dated or will they provide an archival window into young adult life at this intersection of history?