Newberry Winner Creates Characters Who ‘Give Hope’
Jerry Craft, the New York Times bestselling author-illustrator of the first-ever graphic novel to win the John Newberry Medal for outstanding contribution to children’s literature, visited with Middle Schoolers in a virtual assembly on Wednesday, February 10.
Craft told the boys his ambition in his decades-long career has been to “stop the single-story narrative” around African-American life.
“What inspires me is to get kids of color to see characters they can relate to, that actually give them hope,” he said.
“There is no one specific way to be African American,” he said. “You can still be you.”
Craft is the author and illustrator of the award-winning New Kid, published in 2019. The book won the 2020 Newberry Medal on the same day it was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award for outstanding work by an African-American writer.
Craft told the boys that when the phone rang with the news of the honors, he was surprised.
“I never thought I would hear that,” he said. “People really liked it.”
Raised in Washington Heights, Craft said he “never saw himself” in any of the books he was asked to read in school, and that narratives around slavery, civil rights, police brutality, and gangs “was not my life at all.”
The Dickens classic Great Expectations, he said, proved to be the exception. The young Craft identified with the young English hero with high ambition, and to his surprise, he found he “actually finished a book.”
His early career was marked by rejection from publishers, so Craft taught himself how to self-publish, and that led to more work from other writers and illustrators who faced similar circumstances.
He offered the boys a glimpse of the writing life: For New Kid, he started drawing every day in January 2017, and then worked 15-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, until he finished 13 months later.
“It is a monster, monster job,” he said.
New Kid was also the first graphic novel to win the Kirkus Prize in the Young Readers Literature category, and a movie is on the horizon after Universal Pictures acquired film rights, with LeBron James’ The Spring Hill Company on board to develop and produce.
Craft’s second graphic novel, Class Act, the sequel to New Kid, was published in October.