Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, NEW KID, is honest, crammed with real moments, and it is an excellent commentary on you and you and me and the biases and vulnerabilities we all share. The main character, Jordan Banks, is a Black 12-year-old NYC kid about to start 7th grade at a prestigious academically-oriented private school that has little racial or economic diversity. He just wants to go to art school, but, despite misgivings, his parents aren’t about to pass up a golden opportunity. The book starts on Jordan’s first day of school, and as we follow Jordan, we are immersed in Jordan’s new but foreign world of high-end privilege and opportunity at Riverdale Academy.
Jordan’s feelings of being “the other” crop up as soon as he arrives. His happiness at seeing a Black father pull up to school is deflated when he realizes the driver is actually a chauffeur. And his excitement at spotting another Black boy in the hallway becomes upsetting when Maury, who has attended the school since Kindergarten, is referred to by a nickname meant to insult him for not fitting in with racist expectations. Despite being paired with a helpful student, Liam, as his “guide,” a series of micro-aggressions ranging from abrupt questions to comments about liking a teacher — because he’s also Black — to consistently making comments about another student’s food choices disrupt any comfort to be had. Most of these comments come from Andy Peterson, the resident obtusely-mean kid. Craft skillfully fills in the school population with a wide range of personalities and social types, and each feels developed and real.
As an educator, I particularly appreciated the depiction of how the teachers reflected various styles and perceptions when working in a diverse environment. Jordan’s math teacher, Mr. Garner, who is Black, is in the middle of assuring Jordan that people are mixing him up with another Black student because he’s new when a colleague calls Mr. Garner “Coach” and wishes him luck in an upcoming game. Not only does Mr. Garner not coach a team, but he has taught at Riverdale Academy for 14 years. Another teacher is constantly asking his students if something he has said was offensive. And painfully, Jordan’s English teacher continually makes careless offenses with names and economic assumptions. She also applies standards of behavior unequally based on race which almost gets a student expelled when he speaks up in frustration. Sadly, when given an open-ended opportunity to grow, she resists and refuses.
NEW KID asks readers to relate to characters both similar to themselves and different from themselves. Biases are confronted on all sides, and assumptions are challenged. Characters are given avenues to change, and — as in real life — not all take the chance. All this is wrapped in a storyline that feels true to middle school life and almost-teenage drama. The author’s empathy for the discomforts and joys of each of the main characters brings them to life and nudges us to embrace each character fully — even when we may not immediately see ourselves in them.
I highly recommend this graphic novel for ages 10+. Seriously, older teens and adults, too. And I deeply believe every teacher of middle school and high school students should read this book. Twice. New Kid comes out on February 5th, 2019 — so preorder yours today! An audiobook version of New Kid is also being released with a FULL CAST!