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On Distinction and Jerry Craft's New Kid

Tomorrow morning, the American Library Association will announce the Youth Media Awards honorees. These awards include the Caldecott medal, the Coretta Scott King Book awards, and the John Newbery Medal. The Newbery medal is awarded each January to the book judged to be the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" from the previous year, and for those of us who work with young readers, it launches a yearlong journey to find the winner. Each year, as the notable and buzzy titles begin to surface, there is usually one that stands above the others, and each subsequent title is compared to it as the standard. Many times a latecomer knocks off a long-standing preference, but sometimes, there is one that endures and remains a fervent favorite. That title, for me, is New Kid by Jerry Craft.

A little context: New Kid is a graphic novel. A graphic novel, while easily the most popular genre among young readers, has never won the Newbery medal, though Cece Bell's El Deafo and Victoria Jamieson's Rollergirl received honor designations in 2015 and 2016, respectively. There are adults who dislike the format, perhaps because of its association with comic books. Most adults in the kidlit world, however, see its merit and celebrate the way it meets so many young readers right where they are. So why not the medal?

It's complicated. Though the criteria speak to "presentation" and "style," award committees have traditionally considered the text alone. Accompanying images, page design, or other stylistic decisions would not be factored in. In a graphic novel, however, the presentation and style are uniquely tied to the visual experience on the page. To be considered, therefore, the text of a graphic novel must demonstrate "conspicuous excellence," AND it must provide a coherent and engaging visual experience. Jerry Craft has done exactly that.

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. And the hits are real. Nobody gets a pass. The publishing industry, librarians, teachers, parents, even the book fair! For the most part, however, the dings are delivered in such a way that you can feel corrected without feeling attacked.

The real significance of the book is in the content. But the visuals - they take the story to another level. Each chapter's heading is a literary or pop culture allusion plus some word play plus a movie poster, and each one is perfect. Like the best animated movies that parents can love as much as their kids, New Kid shows off some significant intelligence and wit without ever feeling inaccessible to the intended audience. Rereading uncovered even more gems, like the boy with the headphones that keeps showing up in the background, each time talking to a different girl. We all know that kid. And the way I can't stop thinking about how Andy's tie is often flying over his shoulder a la Dilbert. The panels where Jordan describes codeswitching via the bus. And the way Drew both teaches us a lesson and breaks our hearts when he says, "I'm starting not to care what Ms. Rawle thinks. She's never going to like me anyway. So I might as well give her what she wants, right?" Powerful.

It's a very fine book. It is a book of considerable distinction, and it gets my vote for the Newbery Medal. Now, let's just see if the committee agrees.


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