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August 13, 2020

By Kevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

“What did you have to do to make your characters talk realistically?” Gunnar E. ’26 asks.

Jerry Craft ’80 — writer, illustrator, and Fieldston alum — answers without hesitation. “That comes from listening. I have to say, I’m almost never not paying attention.”

Gunnar and roughly two dozen of his classmates are gathered for a Literary Lunch to hear Craft talk about his creative process. Earlier in the day, Craft — whose graphic novel “New Kid” was the much-beloved summer read for all Fieldston Middle students — spoke to the entire division at a town hall. Now, as he takes question after question from a smaller group of students, he shares a bit of everything: the inspiration for his characters, tips on how to draw realistic figures, and advice gleaned from starting his own publishing company.

Craft also isn’t afraid to talk about the struggles he faced along the way. “If you could give one piece of advice to the younger self that got three rejection letters, what would you say?” Zachary L. ’26 asks.

“It’s just personal opinion,” responds Craft. He compares publishers rejecting his work to someone not liking the tie he wears — understanding that everyone is entitled to their own opinions helps him to not take rejection personally.

Craft was undaunted when he began his professional career, and he remains undaunted now — and, with multiple books and several awards under his belt, he’s back at his alma mater to show that grit, determination, and a passion for one’s work really do pay off.

“New Kid” is a coming-of-age story that centers on Jordan Banks, an African-American boy who lives in Washington Heights, and his experience as the “new kid” at the preppy Riverdale Academy Day School, where most of the student population is white. A funny, personable narrator and a talented artist, Jordan takes us on his journey as he sketches, questions, and navigates his way through middle-school life.

Craft was inspired to create a protagonist who would have resonated with him as a student growing up. “I always wanted to do a book that showed kids of color, specifically African-American kids, as regular kids,” he says. “If you go to any school library, most of the books are about slavery or civil rights or some really tough struggle. Those books are important, but I think it’s also very important to show kids happy and doing regular things: playing video games, eating pizza, eating ice cream.”

I’m almost never not paying attention.

Though its setting and characters are fictional, much of “New Kid” is based on Craft’s memories of entering the Ethical Culture Fieldston School as a 9th Grader and finding his place over the next four years. Like Jordan, Craft grappled with the unease of inhabiting a liminal space as a student: “Every day, [I was] going to two completely different worlds, where one is my neighborhood, where my block is all African-American and Puerto Rican, and then coming to Riverdale that was majority-white.”

As readers, sometimes we chuckle, like when Jordan encounters “salmon”-colored shorts for the first time. At other times, we grit our teeth, like when Jordan faces yet another microaggression at school or returns home to find a growing rift with his childhood friends.

In 2019, “New Kid” won the Kirkus Prize for young readers’ literature, and in 2020, it won the Newbery Medal — making it the first graphic novel to receive either honor. Craft sees this recognition as validation of the graphic novel as a serious literary form. “There are still people that think that a [traditional] prose book is like a steak dinner and a graphic novel is like cupcakes after,” he says. “I want to show that I use the same kind of plot points when you talk about character development and story arc, that other people use in creating their books.”

And Craft hopes that “New Kid,” by virtue of its visual form, will help spark a love of literature in students. “I heard someone once say that there’s no such thing as a kid who doesn’t like to read; there are just kids who haven’t found their book yet,” he says. “And it has seemed like ‘New Kid’ is that book for a lot of kids who haven’t traditionally been seen as being a reader.”

Earlier in the week, Craft joined 4th Graders at Fieldston Lower as part of a series of author visits hosted by the Celebration of Books. For years, Craft has been working with Fieldston Lower students who eagerly anticipate the hour they get to see him work his craft.

On sheets of paper stuck to the whiteboard, Craft is drawing shapes. He narrates as he draws — a capital C, a capital L, the number 3, a capital M — and the letters and numbers slowly come together to form a greater picture. The children are barely able to stay in their seats as they crane to get a better view. “Oh, I see it now. The ‘3’ is his arm,” Alex A. ’28 says. And then, all of a sudden, there it is: an illustration of Charlie Brown, from the Peanuts.

Craft astonishes the 4th Grade students by calling many of them by their names, which he gathered ahead of time from their teachers. It’s a way of building rapport with students, and it’s a demonstration of how earnest Craft is in trying to connect with young readers.

Back at the Literary Lunch, it’s clear that “New Kid” connects with the Fieldston Middle students. Some students, like Malaika S. ’26, are aspiring writers and illustrators themselves, and the techniques and strategies Craft shares inspire them as they continue to develop their artistry. Others find special resonance with the characters of the book: “I’m also from the Bronx, and I was a new kid last year in 6th Grade, so I felt I could share some of the experiences with Jordan and his life and his school,” Brandon B. ’25 says.

“All that he’s saying about how he’s very observant and how he’s looking around at his surroundings — I think it applies to anything we do, in any occupation,” says Wesley M. ’25.

It’s an approach that will serve our students — new kids or not — for years to come.