2020 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of importance for the Christian audience.)
New Kid, written and illustrated by Jerry Craft, is the recipient of the ALA’s 2020 Newbery Award.1 Mr. Craft is an award-winning writer, illustrator, and cartoonist (the creator of the comic strip Mama’s Boyz), and New Kid demonstrates his skill in each of these fields. In his virtual Newbery acceptance speech, he said, “I wanted to create stories that show the side of African American life that isn’t steeped in misery. A book that kids of color can proudly embrace, and that other kids can still relate to."2
This graphic novel is a school story that examines the insecurities, challenges, and downright awkwardness that middle school students are familiar with. Twelve-year-old Jordan is the only son in a two-parent home, and he lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City where he has always attended his neighborhood elementary school. But in the new school year, he will be attending an elite private school. This will require a bus ride to and from along with other adjustments he’s not thrilled about.
Jordan’s initial struggle is that he wants to go to art school, but his parents are sending him to Riverdale Academy, a school with a strong emphasis on academics. They hope this will give him a solid foundation that will serve him well in the future. The opening days in the new school feature universal experiences—locating his classroom in unfamiliar buildings, meeting new people in and out of the classroom, understanding the pecking order that manifests itself in ways like who gets the best tables in the cafeteria, navigating the stereotypes seen by others (many of them false), and more. Andy, the football quarterback, tells Jordan to stay away from the anime dorks, show-offs, computer geeks, awkward kids, other new kids, and Liam, the king of the dorks who also happens to be the student guide assigned to Jordan to show him the ropes. The verbiage in school stories changes from one generation to the next, but the problems have much in common.
So far, this is a recognizable story, but the author adds a layer. In this loosely autobiographical story, Craft tackles the issues Jordan faces as a black boy in a white world, particularly in a school where racial diversity is nearly nonexistent. For example, when Jordan leaves with Liam for a tour of the new school, Jordan’s father assures a neighbor that his son is not being arrested.3 And when the character named Maury joins the cast of the story, his head is illustrated as an Oreo with captions that read “black on the outside,” “white on the inside."4 These issues and more could open discussions at a time when the United States is wrestling to find productive ways to address racial unrest.
Jordan is an intelligent, kind boy. He communicates well with his parents, leans on the wisdom of his grandfather, and tries hard to make the best of the difficult situation he finds himself in. He is guarded in the beginning of the book (who wouldn’t be under similar circumstances?), but he grows as a character as the book progresses. He finds his place; he defends the vulnerable; he befriends the lone and the lonely. He questions the stereotypes, attempts to make good choices, and works to succeed in his new school. He’s a likeable kid.
Jordan’s school, like most schools, is a microcosm of a larger community. His school has much good to offer through solid academics, social interaction, and extracurricular learning. But because schools in general have people who teach other people, the humanity of it all means both negative and positive elements can be found, and Jordan’s school has its fair share of both. This leads to the overarching theme of New Kid—in a word, “differences.” Differences can be the cause of detrimental, demeaning, or diminishing words and actions, and no one is in favor of that. But with a shift in focus, the very same differences can lead to perceptive understanding of others which leads to the potential of unity in a school (and hopefully beyond) because of, not in spite of, the differences.
Mr. Craft has covered a lot of ground in this book, and his approach could have given Jordan’s situation a lack of focus or resulted in chaotic storytelling, and yet Craft avoids both concerns and succeeds in telling a cohesive story that is both interesting and pertinent.
He interjects several two-page spreads on a variety of topics from shaking hands to judging kids by the covers of their books to losing your family’s culture, and more. These spreads are presented as Jordan’s own illustrated observations; remember, Jordan is an artist.
The author titles each chapter with an interesting riff on book, movie, and TV titles, which perhaps carry more meaning for readers older than the targeted 8–12 age bracket printed on the back cover. For example, chapter one turns Sun Tzu’s The Art of War into “The War of Art,” a fitting title for Jordan’s school struggles. Chapter five morphs Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love into “Cleats, Play, and Gloves,” a chapter on school sports.
This Newbery winner has a strong message filled with an abundance of talking points that are summed up by Jordan’s friend Drew. He says to the obnoxious Andy, “I couldn’t care less about baseball! What I DO care about is that you think you can say and do whatever you want to people. And no one ever calls you out on it!"5 Being called out may not lead to comfortable conversations, but if it leads to an understanding that we need to emulate our God in treating others without partiality or hypocrisy (James 3:17) or that we are called to “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18), New Kid will have opened worthy conversations.
3 Jerry Craft. New Kid (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), 14.
4 Craft, 26.
5 Craft, 199.