Crafting the message: Award-winning author Jerry Craft shares the ‘magic of reading’ with students

One may think that a New York times bestselling author would have been bona fide book worm in younger days, but Jerry Craft says he “absolutely, unequivocally, hated to read as a kid.”

“I felt like most of the books with African-American characters focused on history or misery,” Craft said. “There wasn’t a Harry Potter who looked like me.”

He did like reading Marvel comics, but teachers would swipe them away, viewing them as inferior versions of the standard classroom classics.

“Early on, I was like, ‘OK, well reading is not supposed to be fun, reading is supposed to be a chore.’ That really didn’t change until I was an adult,” Craft said.

An award-winning author and illustrator, Craft has seen a meteoric rise after the release of his series of graphic novels: “New Kid,” “Class Act,” and “School Trip.”

Each grapples with the messiness of adolescence and how ideas of race, identity, class and privilege can shape that experience. Rooted in the novels is a universality too, reflecting things that all kids go through.

Craft will be in town on Friday for a visit to Central Middle School in the morning and Northside Middle School in the afternoon.

On Saturday, he’ll be presenting at the Bartholomew County Literacy Task Force’s annual Bartholomew Reads Authors Conference and Literacy Festival at Central Middle School from 10 to 11 a.m.

Since as far back as he can remember, Craft said he has had an affinity for drawing. When his brother was a Marine stationed in Okinawa, Craft would send him stick figure drawings of movies he had seen. A ninth grade biology teacher once allowed him to turn in a paper in comic book form and Craft never forgot it, realizing just how much information you could fit into a comic.

“I probably worked 10 times as hard because it was a comic book and because she trusted me. The last thing I wanted to do was take advantage and disappoint her,” he said.

Craft seeks to help show “reluctant readers,” the magic of reading, because he himself used to be one. He is also cognizant of being one of a few prominent, Black authors and illustrators, he said.

“It’s almost like the Spider-Man quote, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’” Craft said. “And I do feel a sense of obligation to correct all the things that scared me away from reading books as a kid.”

“I felt like with so many books about slavery, civil rights and police brutality, I’m like, can we just get a break? Can we just have an adventure and then go home and talk together? And that is what I have basically dedicated my creative life to producing.”

In the universe he creates in his books, Craft simply “normalizes good kids,” he said.

“I just want to show kids that a Jerry Craft book will have a loving family and friends and the kids are going to last until the end of the book.”

The novels are full of humor, part of why Craft thinks they connect with young people in the way they do.

“Kids love to laugh and be silly, I have definitely kept a large part of my inner 12 year-old alive and healthy,” Craft said. “… I just really love kids and I love the innocence of it — and that’s why I gravitate to the middle grade.”

In “New Kid,” the protagonist, Jordan Banks, starts at a ritzy private school, where he is one of the few African-American students in the predominantly white school. Over the next two companion novels, Banks and his friends learn about each other and the world through encounters of the everyday life of middle-schoolers.

It was received with universal acclaim— winning the prestigious Newberry Medal in 2020, the first graphic novel to do so, the 2020 Coretta Scott King Award, and the 2019 Kirkus Prize for young reader’s literature. Not only that, Universal Pictures acquired the film rights to it, with Lebron James’ Spring Hill Company set to develop and produce.

However, “New Kid” was also subject to efforts in school districts in Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania to remove it from school libraries. Those angling to have it removed cited the teaching of “critical race theory” as the reason.

Craft previously said in an interview with the Washington Post that he had to Google to find out what critical race theory even was when he heard about the attempt to remove his book in Katy, Texas. Most of the districts that reviewed “New Kid,” decided to keep it in circulation.

Craft wondered where the people trying to remove his books from libraries were when he was 10-years old, with little to read that portrayed the Black experience in something other than a negative light.

“Now that there are books with so many different experiences, now people are crossing the line? And growing up, so many of the Black books were written and illustrated by white authors and that wasn’t a problem. But now you have people of color writing their own characters, (and) now it’s a problem,” he said.

“I’ve never had anyone come to me and say, you know, we had a focus group, we had a class of fifth graders read your book and say here’s some concerns that they expressed,” Craft said. “… It’s the adult who is saying that my book teaches critical race theory, it’s Marxist, and it’s designed to make white kids feel bad. What are you basing that on?”

“School Trip,” sees the group of friends go overseas to Paris, but the series already had an international audience.

The entire series has been translated into dozens of languages and Craft said he receives emails from kids all around the world telling him how much they love his books.

Craft recalled a teacher crying as they told him about a “reluctant reader” in their class. The student gave the teacher “New Kid,” and made the teacher promise to read it over the weekend, so the two could talk about it together the following Monday, he said.

“That’s why the amount of school visits I do and the amount of dedication I put into creating new books and relatable characters is so important to me,” he said.

Craft said he is currently working an a “whole new three book series.” At the time of speaking with The Republic, he said he was up til 1 a.m. the night before drawing.

“If I can get kids to read and also to be kind to each other and to have a little bit more empathy — you’re not going to like everybody, which is fine, but you don’t have to be mean just for the sake of being mean,” he said.

Craft is living proof that even someone who hated reading as a kid can find and harness its power and make it out all right.

“Even with my imagination as a kid, I never had dreams as big as what my life has become and I cherish every day of it.”