But do you know how many of our 1200 employees are African American?”
“I know, Mom. Fifty.”
“FORTY EIGHT. They just got rid of Donna and Jeannine in Consumer Marketing. The point is, in order to be successful in Corporate America, you have to know how to play the game.”
– from NEW KID, by Jerry Craft
I got this book for my nephew’s birthday next month. I’m going to need another copy. I feel in love…
Being new is the most relatable fish-out-of-water story in the world. Every single person in America has a first day of school, first job, first day on the job at a new company, first day in a new house, on a new street, or in a new church group – we all have something. Being new is the most perfect and easiest thing in the world to write about. Being new and a minority though? That’s… a whole deeper level of being out of place. It’s a fish out of water, sure, but on a bicycle, riding along, breathing air, while everyone stares. It’s next level nerve wracking, and Jerry Craft has depicted the new school experience of one Jordan Banks beautifully with relatable things such as amusingly emo mothers (complete with slightly unwelcome forehead kisses), advice-giving fathers (complete with routine departure questions and Manhood Advice) and a lot of amusement and heart in this stupendous graphic novel.
The problem Jordan is having is that he is living out someone else’s dream… which, how often has THAT happened to any middle grader? ALL the time, right? Jordan’s parents – like every parent in America – dearly want their kid to Excel and Achieve and all sorts of other superlative adjectives that mean he’ll have a stable future and make good money and do better than they did and not have to worry so much. Jordan is gifted and smart, and they want him to excel on the strength of his big brain. It’s a reasonably laudable goal, one which parents through time have foisted on their kids to justify piano lessons, summer school, and Math Camp. Jordan, though, has dreams of his own – again, like anyone. Jordan wants to be a cartoonist. He’s good – he knows he’s good – and the idea of going to a stuck-up school lacking diversity which doesn’t even have a great arts program just… makes him sigh. But, his parents, especially his mother, are kind of relentless. Jordan figures he’ll get to his dream art high school eventually… after all, he’s only in the 7th grade. By high school, surely his mother will have gotten this Riverdale Academy Day School bug out of her system.
The usual nerves and fears of a first day at school are exacerbated by the school sending a “Guide” to pick Jordan up the first day – a White kid in a very expensive SUV, with a father who is openly worried about Jordan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Hilariously, the neighborhood is equally worried about Jordan getting into that car — the Neighborhood Watch captain is pretty sure he’s being arrested — and Jordan himself gets into the car and ducks, horribly afraid to be seen by his former schoolmates. Throughout the novel, readers are get amusing hints as to what both sides of the aisle are thinking through Craft’s carefully detailed artwork.
Despite a heavier homework load, Jordan is fine scholastically at Riverdale, but he did not account for daily interactions with… weirdness . He did not account for the head-swivel which came up every single time someone mentioned Africa, African, drugs, or poverty — all cues for all eyes to go to him. He didn’t account for the obnoxious kids, some of whom overtly Other him, or try to speak to him in AAVE or make hip-hop references. Nor did he account for the obnoxiously clueless adults – some of whom so transparently think they are Doing Good that they are obviously patting themselves on the back during each interaction with him. After meeting wealthy classmates, including a Black boy with whom he cannot at all relate, Jordan begins dodging the facts about the neighborhood where he lives, and realizes that he’s beginning to tell convenient half-truths about his real life, just to avoid recoils, widened eyes and further questions. The school challenges Jordan in other ways, as he struggles to hang out with both White and Black kids at the same time, knowing no reason he can’t talk to his new friends together, but feeling nonetheless that the self-segregation imposed is somehow right, and that Something Bad Might Happen if he crosses lines. Microaggressions, misnaming, and other slings and arrows are a daily part of Jordan’s existence, but importantly Craft shows him not just as a passive victim. Jordan has his own preconceived notions which eventually he confronts and reluctantly begins to try things previously considered not for him. He learns that art is not only what he thought it was. Eventually, he gives a very White and unhip art teacher – and her random abstract art – a chance.
In tiny ways, as he’s working on surviving and waiting out his time in this rarefied halls, Jordan changes. He is still the boy from Washington Heights, still the boy who morphs into various people throughout the various stops on the subway, still the boy who thinks salmon shorts are pink (THEY ARE) — but he also becomes a boy who speaks up for what he believes, who realizes the sky won’t fall if he shakes up the status quo. He becomes a boy who can trust himself to be who he is inside, no matter what he’s wearing… so the shorts get worn, even if they are abandoned in favor of something less… pink. A charming, riveting reflection on coming of age as a person of color, this book will be enjoyed by middle graders, teens, tweens, and everyone else.
Until the next book,