Author-illustrator Jerry Craft typically turns his phone off when he goes to bed. But on Sunday night, he decided to leave it on “just in case,” he said. “I had always heard, through the grapevine, that you get the call at some amazing time in the morning, before the sun’s out,” Craft said. “And I had seen quite a few mock Newberys—sometimes I’d be the winner, sometimes I’d be an Honor, that kind of thing. It’s hard not to look at that. But I knew that there were some other really great titles that were up for consideration. I was cautiously optimistic.”
At 6 a.m., “I just woke up, out of the blue, and stared at the ceiling,” he recalled. When all remained quiet at about 6:30, Craft thought, “Well, I guess I can go back to sleep now. It was nice to even have this kind of dream.” But his reverie was broken by the phone 12 minutes later. “I picked it up and thought, ‘Please don’t let this be a credit card offer.’ Can you imagine? I would have just burst into tears.”
On the other end of the line, Newbery committee chair Krishna Grady told Craft that his graphic novel New Kid (HarperCollins) had been chosen as winner of the 2020 Newbery Medal. “Then the people in the background started screaming and then I started screaming, then I screamed more and they screamed more,” Craft said. “It was pretty amazing.” It is also historic, as New Kid is the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal.
New Kid introduces African-American seventh grader Jordan Banks, an aspiring artist who leaves his home in Washington Heights each morning and takes the bus to his new, private, mostly white school in the Bronx. In his sketchbook, he chronicles what it’s like for him to navigate his two different worlds, the ups and downs of middle school, and the various micro-aggressions he faces each day. The book was inspired by Craft’s own school experiences, as well as those of his two sons, and has been a hit since its release last February. Prior to ALA Midwinter, New Kid had already earned starred reviews in the major review journals, landed on numerous best-of lists for 2019, became a New York Times bestseller, and won the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature.
Craft was still riding high from the Newbery call when his phone rang again at 7:07 a.m. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s weird,’” Craft said. “I saw area code 215, which is Philadelphia [where ALA Midwinter was being held], and I thought, if they’re calling me up to say, ‘Hi, we thought you were Jerry Pinkney when we called earlier. Sorry about that—we hope you didn’t tell anyone,’ that would have made me cry even more.” But, of course, there was no such mix-up. The second call alerted Craft to the fact that he had also won the Coretta Scott King Author Award. “I was stunned,” he recalled, noting that he hadn’t heard any buzz, or seen anything like a mock Coretta Scott King Award poll.
Eager to share his good news, Craft followed the ALA committees’ guidelines for keeping the circle very small until the public announcement; he made calls to his editor (Andrew Eliopulos) and agent (Judy Hansen), and then contacted his immediate family. “I texted my two sons who are away at college,” he said. “And my ex-wife. I wanted her to be one of the first calls too because she has seen the whole struggle. I want to make sure that I include her in the celebration because she definitely saw the lean times.”
A few hours later when the Coretta Scott King Awards were announced, “My texts started blowing up,” Craft said. “And then when they announced the Newbery it was absolutely crazy. I got a ‘welcome to the club’ text from [fellow Newbery Medalist] Kwame Alexander, and messages from [multiple award winners] Jason Reynolds and Elizabeth Acevedo, all people who I look up to.”
Unfortunately, Craft can’t spare much time to celebrate his win just now. “My celebration today, after I answer all these emails, is probably to work on New Kid 2 [entitled Class Act] until about 3:00 in the morning,” he said. “I need to finish it by late next month, for a release date of October 6, 2020.” Despite his tight deadline, he’s pleased with how the new book is turning out. “I’m both a better artist and a better writer than when I did New Kid,” he noted. “I feel very confident that if you liked that you’ll like this. It’s about Jordan and his friends in their eighth-grade year.”
Craft hopes that his latest achievements can serve as inspiration for kids and other authors. “I know what it’s like for me as a grown man to see someone like Kwame Alexander or Jason Reynolds or Eric Velasquez, especially being other African-American men, winning awards. It’s even more crucial for a kid to see a mirror for themselves, to unlock the possibility.” That’s why Craft says he tells the story about how he wasn’t a reader until he was an adult, because he just never found the right book as a kid. He shared this insight in a New York Times sketchbook piece earlier this month. “I do books that I wish 10-year-old Jerry Craft could have had that might have made me a reader at an early age,” he added. “A book that a kid can take and hug the way that other kids hug Wimpy Kid or Smile or Percy Jackson, something to call his or her own.”
Contemplating what it means to win the Newbery Medal, Craft said, “People ask if this was a dream of mine, and it really wasn’t because I never knew I could have a dream like that.” In fact, until fairly recently, he didn’t know what the Newbery was. A couple of years ago, Craft had met fellow author Renée Watson and the two had dinner one night. “As we were talking and getting to know each other, I asked her what she was doing, and she said she had just gotten a Newbery Honor for her book Piecing Me Together [Bloomsbury, 2017)] I said, “Wow, that’s great. I’m so proud of you,’ and then when I was on my way home I was like, ‘Siri, what’s the Newbery Honor?’ I had no idea. Coming from self-publishing, it just was never in my realm of possibility, so it wasn’t something I ever aspired to.”
The fact that he won the Newbery with a graphic novel marks an achievement Craft believes is bigger than New Kid itself. “Hats off to Raina Telgemeier and Gene Yang, and all the people who have done these groundbreaking graphic novels that have opened up the doorway for me,” he said. “They did the alley-oop and I got to slam dunk it. I could not have done it without their assist. Simultaneously, with the Kwame Alexanders, Jason Reynoldses and the Eric Velasquezes, they also paved the way; they did all the blocking so that I could make it into the endzone.”
Sports analogies aside, he added, “This will hopefully get new kids and new writers interested who might say, ‘I wasn’t a reader either, just like Jerry Craft, and then I read New Kid and I think I could do this and tell my own story.’ That would be amazing.”