Graphic novelist Jerry Craft talks about the importance of great expectations and giving children characters and stories they can believe in

Words: Libby Norman

Author and illustrator Jerry Craft creates the books he wanted to read as a child growing up. It is as simple as that. His graphic novels have attracted legions of fans, been translated into 13 languages and won multiple awards, including (for New Kid) the John Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award (both 2020), as well as the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature (2019).

Craft is, justifiably proud of the fact that New Kid is the only book in history to have carried off all three gongs, and justifiably mystified that – briefly – his work was ‘banned’ by some US school districts for supposedly promoting critical race theory. This was swiftly revoked; in a TV interview around that time, Craft ruefully explained how he had looked up critical race theory on Google to find out what he was accused of.

School Trip, Craft’s third book in the series, came out in April. It revolves around many of the same cast, including Jordan, Drew and Liam, only this time they’re whisked away from Riverdale Academy – their private school in New York – to Paris. A prank by a couple of pupils means their teachers get switched and mishap, comedy and happy resolution follow. It’s a great read for the 8-12 age group, with many funny moments and an ensemble cast of diverse characters with very human strengths and weaknesses. “I intentionally don’t make a character all good or all bad.” says Craft.

“A good character’s a good character. Pip had something that no black character I’d ever read about had, and that was great expectations”

The standout hero of the hour in Paris is the wealthiest boy, Maury. He’s smart, humble, super-accomplished in French, generous to the poorest pupil – oh, and he’s black. Craft says Maury’s character development was partly to do with criticism of earlier books in the series. “I always read reviews. I know a lot of people say, ‘don’t read reviews, they will drive you completely mad’. I read my harshest criticism.” Some critics have, he believes, a desire to find something. “They say, ‘well all the white kids are rich, and they’re privileged’. So, I thought, ‘well OK, I’m going to take a black character – Maury – and make him the most privileged’.” The fact that Maury turns out to be privileged and likeable is part of Craft’s approach. He does nuance really well – also playing with narrative conventions. Thought-provoking stuff, especially for this age group.

In conversation with graphic novelist Jerry Craft
Jerry Craft, portrait by Hollis King

He’s open about the biographical elements. Jordan, lynchpin character of the series, is intent on becoming an artist. So too Craft, who was born in Harlem, grew up in New York’s Washington Heights, attended a private school and – just like Jordan – had parents who weren’t convinced art was: “an actual job”. He says that, for him, drawing was everything. “If I wasn’t an artist, I was kind of stuck.”

As a child, Craft didn’t like reading novels, but he did love comics. He devoured Marvel and learned from the stories – even though comics were not ‘proper’ reading matter. “When I was growing up my teachers would take comics from us. But we got our vocabulary from Marvel comics – Macabre, I had to look up macabre; Valkyrie, so what’s a Valkyrie? Armageddon, what’s Armageddon? All these characters from Greek mythology…”  

Marvel gave him heroes he could root for, whereas novels mostly fell short. “I never saw specifically black characters that I thought were leading lives that I wanted – or that I was proud of. It was all slavery and civil rights trouble and gangs and police and prison. I mean, I was 12 years old.” The first novel he devoured was by Charles Dickens. “The first book of any substance that I read, finished and enjoyed – and I tell you, it was like a 400-page book. and I was astonished I could read a 400-page book – was Great Expectations,” says Craft. “So how does a little boy from Harlem grow up and the first character that he identifies with is a kid from England called Pip?

“That goes to show that a good character’s a good character. Pip had something that no black character I’d ever read about had, and that was great expectations. He got to the point where people expected stuff from him, and he expected stuff from him. And most black characters didn’t even expect to make it to the end of the book!”

In conversation with graphic novelist Jerry Craft

Despite his parents’ doubts, Craft attended the School of Visual Arts New York City and then embarked on a successful first career in advertising. His comic strips were always on the go. and got picked up by some newspapers. Later he worked for Barbara Slate (who worked with Marvel) and then at King Features. While his first graphic novel (Mama’s Boyz) was published in 1997 and other self-published books followed, the freelance life was hard. Seeking out a publisher came about because he wanted more certainty in his life – especially as he was now father of two boys. 

“They can go and see Avatar, they can watch Shrek and relate to a green ogre, but they can’t relate to kids of colour spending a week in Paris?”

Still, getting New Kid from concept to fruition was hard. It was first pitched around 2014. A couple of publishers really liked it, but the deals fell through. HarperCollins picked it up in 2017 and, from there, it took 13 gruelling months of 15-hour days to create. When it was finally published in February 2019, and to five-star reviews, it was, says Craft, “amazing”.

Craft is delighted that School Trip is, like the earlier books, garnering great reader reviews. But, ever vigilant, he’s been checking out the negatives. “One of the earliest criticisms from parents said, ‘well, I don’t think my kids will be able to relate to these kids spending a week in Paris’. But OK, these same kids can relate to a young wizard flying on a broom with a magic wand. They can go and see Avatar, they can watch Shrek and relate to a green ogre, but they can’t relate to kids of colour spending a week in Paris?”

In conversation with graphic novelist Jerry Craft

Craft remains philosophical about the mindset that imposes such a low bar. “As Americans, sometimes we grow up thinking this is everything. We forget that there’s a huge world outside of America with different cultures and food and things that you might just like.” One rather poignant scene in School Trip happens when Jordan’s grandpa gives him a hero’s send off and lists earlier talents – including Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and James Baldwin – who headed to Paris. Another happens at the end of the book when Jordan gives Kirk, a best friend in his home neighbourhood, a Euro on the strict condition Kirk will one day make his own trip to Paris to spend it.

This is where Jerry Craft’s real-life scenarios become really magical. Rather like the first novel he loved, he imbues his characters with great expectations. As well as satisfying outcomes you can believe in, there are delicious comic asides in School Trip, such as when readers are given a short, off-plot skit on how not to go through life as a miserable “thumbs downer”.

Craft already had a global fan base, and there has been a great big thumbs up from overseas this time too – the first takers for School Trip translations were Albania and Lithuania (to Craft’s delight and surprise). He’s especially excited to see reactions from France. “I can’t wait to see the French version – I hope that I have done them justice and they will read School Trip and embrace it.”

* School Trip, by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins, £10.99).

Further reading: Nikita Gill, poet for our times