National Book Award finalist Jarrett Krosoczka has returned to his adolescence in Sunshine, his second graphic memoir for teen readers, the cover of which is revealed here, while he continues his web series on drawing for kids, and prepares to launch a series for teens later this week.
Originating as a single chapter in Hey, Kiddo, Krosoczka’s 2018 graphic memoir that recounts his experience being raised by his grandparents, estranged from his father and his mother, the graphic memoir follows 17-year old Jarrett as he works as a counselor at Camp Sunshine, a week-long camp for kids facing terminal illnesses. Focusing on his friendship with a camper and their family, the events of Sunshine, which is due out on May 18, 2021, fit into the chronological narrative of his first graphic memoir. “You can read up to page 262 of Hey, Kiddo, stop, read all of Sunshine, then resume Hey, Kiddo,” Krosoczka told PW.
He first decided to expand the story into a full novel at the advice of his editor, David Levithan, who told him that this story would be the next natural step if Krosoczka chose to continue writing graphic memoirs. “The best piece of advice he gave me,” said Krosoczka, “was not to write Hey, Kiddo like it was my only chance to write about my life or the people in it, which freed me up to let the story become what it needed to be.” While Sunshine isn’t necessarily a sequel to Hey, Kiddo, since it stands on its own, Krosoczka said reading the first story “deepens [the reader’s] understanding of what the Jarrett character is going through when he drives up to this camp for a week.”
The week chronicled in Sunshine, which Krosoczka spent away from his family, working with campers from across New England and beyond who had different struggles than his own, was “a crucial turning point” in his life. “I was developing these friendships with campers and was wondering if my dad ever went on to have more kids that I’d never know about, unless I wrote him back,” said Krosoczka, who was deciding whether to begin a relationship with his distant parent. “The experience taught me that while my difficulties in childhood were profound, I wasn’t the only person who had to deal with adverse experiences. [Working at Camp Sunshine] was such an important part of my growth as a person and my understanding of compassion and giving myself up to be of service to others.”
When writing Hey, Kiddo, Krosoczka digitized hours of VHS footage from his childhood, including footage from his time at Camp Sunshine. “To see some of those kids from camp again and hear their voices was a very deeply moving experience, especially compounded with the fact that I’m now a dad and those kids in the videos are the same age as my children.” A self-proclaimed sentimental packrat, Krosoczka once again used saved artifacts from his youth in chapter headings and plumbed his journals to revisit his thoughts and feelings about his time at Camp Sunshine. “It was almost like creating a book with my 17-year-old self,” he said.
The cover of Sunshine is similar in style to Hey, Kiddo, to show they are “of the same fabric,” but Krosoczka wanted to portray a more optimistic tone for this second graphic memoir. “People often assume that working at a camp for kids with cancer is sad, but it was actually really inspiring,” he said. “One of the themes in the book is how the mathematics of volunteerism never seem to work out because no matter how much you put in, you always get so much more out of it.” It was also important to Krosoczka that the cover not look too young, so it was pushed to skew older, portraying an older teen with a young child, and given a subtitle “to give the reader a better sense of the story.”
While many of the characters’ names and likenesses have been changed for the novel, a few of the real campers have been included, with the blessing of the individual or their family. “Some of the kids featured are alive and some aren’t,” Krosoczka said. “The family members who are bereaved have been moved by this story. Here we are 26 years later, and that kid is being remembered; it’s a powerful way to keep people alive in memories and hearts. It seems like such an oft-used phrase but there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about these kids.”
In fact, before his time at Camp Sunshine, Krosoczka had not seriously considered writing for children. “In the years during which I was sending my work to publishers and getting rejected, I would bring my rough drafts to camp and read them to the campers. Seeing their appreciation gave me the confidence I needed to keep trying.”
A Resolution to Connect
For Krosoczka, there’s a direct link between his time at Camp Sunshine and his current digital initiatives, Draw Every Day with JJK and a new project, Origin Stories with JJK, which launches on September 17. At the start of the year, Krosoczka resolved to dedicate more time to webcasts, a resolution that proved apt when his event schedule came to a standstill in mid-March. “My last public event was on March 12 in Pittsburgh, where I gave a big lecture at their art center. My hotel was adjacent to where Mr. Rogers filmed his show.”
During his early morning ride to the airport, Krosoczka passed Rogers’s studio and his mind started racing. “Of course, when anything terrible happens in this country we think about Mr. Rogers and his calm, measured demeanor. I started thinking about how we were all going to be home [because of the pandemic] and how we’re all freaking out and trying to figure out how to homeschool our kids.” Wondering how caretakers were going to teach their kids art, Krosoczka came up with the idea for a daily webcast via Facebook Live, during which he’d teach drawing skills to viewers of all ages.
By the time his plane had landed, he’d come up with the title of the show. He then spent the weekend making animated titles and coming up with a two-week plan. “I’ve always avoided having my kids on social media,” Krosoczka said, “but I thought, if they come on and draw with me, the kids who are watching will connect with them and together we can model how families can draw together.” After two weeks, with no solution to Covid-19 in sight, he felt a responsibility to continue. Eventually shifting to daily pre-recorded videos to allow for better production value, Krosoczka shared a new video every weekday through Memorial Day, then took the summer to regroup.
At the beginning of August, Draw Every Day with JJK returned with a slightly different format. Instead of every weekday, there are now two episodes per week. One is an instruction video and the other is a drawing challenge video. For the challenges, Krosoczka randomly draws a prompt—the first was “dentist giraffe”—then invites viewers to submit their drawings. The following week, he shows his interpretation and process, along with any submissions from viewers.
Krosoczka has also added a studio assistant to the mix, a non-binary puppet named Drew, a character he originally created to host their own show. He had written scripts and was getting ready to start filming when the pandemic threw a wrench in the plans and he decided that, right then, what viewers needed was someone recognizable and, hopefully, reassuring. Eventually, he had time to consider ways to incorporate Drew into the show. “I thought it’d be funny if Drew was just the frazzled, put-upon studio assistant, a young wide-eyed artist, who is doing this internship with me. There may be episodes that they take over and host,” Krosoczka said, mentioning he had a separate set of gloves made for overhead shots to show Drew drawing. Krosoczka plans to continue the web series in this format through December, when he’ll hit 100 episodes.
Draw Every Day with JJK was conceived as a show for all ages, but as it progressed it become “sillier” and aimed at a younger audience, landing somewhere between “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Krosoczka said. Realizing that he needed to feed his newfound teen audience from his memoir, he developed another web series scheduled to launch this week: Origin Stories with JJK. “I have been obsessed with how people came to be,” he said. “I was missing my friends and I’ve always felt that when I was at an event just grabbing coffee or lunch with a fellow creator, our conversations were more interesting than those on stage because we were more relaxed. So, I thought, how do I make this work?”
Krosoczka decided on a 10-episode series, featuring artists like Raina Telgemeier, Jerry Craft, Raúl the Third, Gene Luen Yang, Mike Curato, Lucy Knisley, Maia Kobabe, Ngozi Ukazu, and Robin Ha, with each episode including a roughly 20-minute interview, then a 10-minute readers’ theater featuring the guest’s work. “This is longform, somewhere between Jimmy Fallon and Terry Gross,” Krosoczka said. The series will be housed on a new YouTube channel that he created specifically for older readers.
Krosoczka said he’s always chasing that “nice cat” moment, referring to the offhand but ultimately pivotal comment made towards him by a visiting illustrator as a kid, which fed and inspired his burgeoning interest in art. “I’m always thinking that I don’t know when whatever small bit of encouragement I give is going to send [someone] on their way. The idea of being at some conference one day, decades from now, and having a debut author comes up to me in my wheelchair and tell me, ‘I used to watch your show!’ will be hugely gratifying. I feel like I’m essentially training my replacement. I have benefited from the generosity and grace of so many authors and illustrators who came before me; I’m just a small link in that chain.”