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My MARVELous Vocabulary: a guest post by author Jerry Craft

NewKid HC cAs far back as I can remember, I have always loved comic books. Way before I had ever heard the term “graphic novel,” or aspired to create one, I remember running to my local candy store almost every week to buy the latest issues. But even though I bought them, I didn’t always read them. I had never heard the term “reluctant reader,” back then, but that’s exactly what I was. Occasionally, I would read my comics cover to cover, but those were mainly the issues that had more action scenes and fewer pages with our heroes as their secret identities. Those pages I would quickly scan in order to get the gist.

In junior high school, comics were looked at as some type of contraband that teachers would confiscate “to keep them from rotting our brains.” In fact, by the time the school year came to an end, some of those teachers would have larger comic collections in their bottom desk drawer than most of us had at home. So that was what I expected. Until Mr. Krupka, the first teacher I ever had who not only liked comics, but he actually encouraged us to read them. We quickly realized that if Mr. Krupka took one of our comics, it was only because he wanted to read it first! And much to our surprise, he even returned them!

With the exception of Mr. K., few of my teachers ever saw how comics helped to build my vocabulary. Especially Marvel Comics, because I couldn’t even read the cover without having to go and consult my family’s 400-pound Miriam Webster Dictionary (a book that looked more like I would use it to recite some type of ancient incantation than look up a word). But I had to because every title I bought had some type of fancy adjective before the name of the hero.

The Uncanny X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, The Invincible Iron Man, Astonishing Tales, The Macabre Man-Thing, and of course, Spider-Man who was both “amazing” AND “spectacular!” And if that wasn’t enough, I also had to go back to the dictionary to see what my favorite hero was trying to prevent! An apocalypse? . . .  Total annihilation? . . .  I went back to that gigantic dictionary so many times that not only did I build my vocabulary, I also built up my arm strength! (Have I mentioned how heavy it was?) So the better my reading skills and vocabulary, the less intimidated I was about reading other types of books. Even though I STILL didn’t really enjoy reading. It was not as if I COULDN’T read other books—I just didn’t WANT to. There’s a huge difference between the two.

Reading comics also encouraged me to write and draw my own comic books, which I absolutely loved (and obviously still do.) By the time I got to high school (in Riverdale), I was confident enough in my skills that I tried to talk my earth science teacher into allowing me to make a comic book instead of writing a term paper. And she let me! My comic was all about the life of a plant and how winter came in the form of an onslaught of spaceships armed with freeze rays! I still remember how our heroes transported supplies by using the xylem and phloem systems! Let me type that again . . . because I used that in my comic, I STILL remember xylem and phloem! And that’s without having to look it up!

By the time I was a college student at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), my comics were even better. And I also began to realize that between comic books, which I still loved, and TV cartoons like Schoolhouse Rock, did not rot my brain at all. If anything, they nourished it. But it still amazed me how many teachers did not understand. (Luckily, many of the teachers at SVA were cartoonists, so of course, they got it.) 

When I got out of college, it was very hard for me NOT to use my platform to help teach. So I created a comic strip called Mama’s Boyz — the story of a mom raising her two teenage sons while also running the family bookstore. Needless to say, Mom spent a lot of time trying to get her sons to read. In addition to literacy, over the years, I also used my comic strip to teach my readers about healthy eating, diabetes, teenage pregnancy, and organ and tissue donation. And the NY Daily News even commissioned me to develop a series of comic strips for their AIDs supplement. Miraculously, I pulled it off.

Fast forward  twenty years, during which time I published about two dozen books on my own because I NEVER thought that mainstream publishing would be interested in the types of stories that I wanted to tell. Stories with African-American protagonists where, even if they dealt with serious issues, still have to convey a sense of hope. And because I love to make people laugh, I wanted to add humor. There are sooo many important books by African-American authors who cover a myriad of topics, from historical to contemporary fiction, and my goal is to add my stories to complement their narratives so that kids can get a wide range of African-American life.

And that brings us to New Kid, my middle-grade graphic novel that follows the life of Jordan Banks, a 12-year-old boy from the Washington Heights section of New York City. More than anything, he wants to go to art school. But much like my parents, Jordan’s mom and dad don’t think that being an artist is a real job, which means they think he’ll probably live the rest of his life in their basement. So they send him to a prestigious and predominately white private school in Riverdale, a very affluent community. (Just like my parents did to me.) Each day, Jordan leaves his African-American and Latinx neighbors and tries to fit into a community that he has only seen on TV. But because he is also small for his age, and light-skinned with straight hair, he doesn’t always feel a part of the kids from his neighborhood, either. So, in essence, it’s a classic fish-out-of-water story. 

The teaching aspect comes from examining many of the nuances of trying to fit into the setting of Riverdale Academy Day School. The microaggressions, the code-switching, the “being confused with other Black kids” . . . (And English teachers will like that I teach kids about metaphors!)  But Jordan’s not perfect either. My goal is definitely not to blame, it’s to open eyes while also opening mouths that will look forward to having healthy conversations. I’d love for New Kid to be a book that African-American kids proudly claim as their own, while other kids see it as a book that always embraces them without ever being condescending. And it’s very important for me to make them laugh.

So with your help, we can start healthy discussions, and if the book does well, then maybe, I can finally move out of my parents’ basement.

Thank you!

CraftJerry ap 1 Credit Hollis KingJerry Craft is an author and illustrator whose most recent book is New Kid (HarperCollins, February 5, 2019). Craft has worked on numerous picture books, graphic novels, and middle grade novels, including The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass. He is the creator of Mama’s Boyz, an award-winning syndicated comic strip. He has won five African American Literary Awards and is a cofounder of the Schomburg Center’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival. He received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts and now lives in Connecticut. Visit him online at www.jerrycraft.com.

Comments

  1. I too can relate. Thank you for putting words to my emotions.

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