Jerry Craft’s middle-grade graphic novel New Kid broke new ground in more ways than one: it was the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal (it also won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature), and it’s the first mainstream middle-grade graphic novel to frankly depict the everyday racism that Black youths face in and out of school.
Now Craft is back with a new story, Class Act, which he describes not as a sequel but as a companion volume, although it follows Jordan Banks and his friends through most of their second year at Riverdale Academy Day School (a.k.a. RAD), a private school for elite students. In New Kid, Jordan formed a solid friendship with Drew, a Black student from the Bronx, and Liam, a wealthy white student. In Class Act, Craft goes deeper into the lives of his characters and also spotlights issues of class that come between them. Craft is currently working on a third volume that will wrap up Jordan’s second year at the school. We spoke with Craft about how Class Act is different from New Kid and about the continuing adventures of Jordan at RAD and beyond.
How did you decide what changes to bring to the characters and their world in Class Act, and what new ground did you break in terms of character development?
Class Act talks about class as much as it talks about race. One of the biggest things is that Drew and Liam are friends but when Drew visits Liam’s house and sees just how amazing his life is—his mom doesn’t work, he’s got a pool, he’s got all this stuff—he thinks forward to later on in life: will someone like you and someone like me ever really be friends? And if we are not going to be friends down the line, why waste the time to try to be friends now? That was one of the biggest things.
The other part is the colorism between Drew and Jordan: Jordan being small, light-skinned, with straight hair, generally non-threatening, and Drew being taller, older, dark-skinned, with natural hair. I wanted to explore a lot of nuances as to how they are perceived differently.
The third thing is, as I started to do more school visits, I realized how important it is for kids to see themselves. [In Class Act] I have a Muslim girl with a pretty big part, but her being Muslim is not pertinent to the story. She’s a smart aleck. That is what her story is, not her being bullied because of her religion. There’s an African American boy in the basketball scene with vitiligo, and a girl with alopecia who is in maybe four or five panels. That was a direct request from kids saying, “I want someone who looks like me in your book.”
Why did you think it was important to add this new dimension of class to the story?
In my opinion, African Americans in a lot of literature are one-dimensional, and I wanted to talk about the difference. The first thing you see [in Class Act] is that Jordan gets awakened by his mom, he has breakfast with his family, his dad drives him to school. Liam is awakened by his maid, he has this huge breakfast smorgasbord, they get new laptops, he has a driver, but [in the picture] on his nightstand it’s not him and his dad, it’s him and Mr. Pierre [the chauffeur]. Even though he seemingly has everything, he wishes he could have what Jordan has, which is his mom and dad who are very present in his life. They get driven to school, where Drew has to take two buses from Co-op City. I have read reviews of New Kid over the past year, and some people will say Jordan is a poor kid on scholarship dealing with poverty. No. He does get financial aid, but he is not poor. There are distinctions, but that’s where people put you into that box. I wanted to show the different boxes, where you have Maury [a wealthy African American student], you have Jordan, you have Drew, and you have Kirk, Jordan’s friend from the block. They are all very different African American boys, instead of that one universal boy you see on TV who is a rapper, trying to get into the NBA, whose dad is in prison.
In Class Act, a group of students from another, less affluent school comes to visit RAD, and the contrast between their school and RAD is very sharp. Why did you bring in this new storyline? Will they be back?
In New Kid I poked fun at teachers a bit, as lovingly as I could. In this one I really wanted to make the school aware that they were not perfect and attempted to lay the foundation where they could do things to improve, so when they [play host to] the sister school, it’s well-intentioned but it couldn’t have been worse. I see that so many times when I go to these elite private schools where they have a sister school or a community service day, and during the community service day they will go into an urban neighborhood and do a charity event, and sometimes that’s the only time those kids will see African American people. If that’s all you ever see, then you turn on TV and the movies, you literally think that every time you see someone like me you have to give them a sandwich.
It’s definitely a one-shot deal, although I may bring back one girl, Tricia, because I did like that interaction of she wants to be smart but is a little embarrassed to show it in her current surroundings. I did some of our African American dirty laundry in the fact of the colorism but also the limits that we put on ourselves.
New Kid was your first graphic novel to be published by a major book publisher and the first graphic novel ever to win a Newbery Award. How did the reaction to New Kid affect your work on Class Act?
The good thing is the script was done before any of the huge hoopla. I’m extremely grateful that I did not have to start the process after having won the Newbery, the Coretta Scott King, and the Kirkus, because I think the pressure might have changed my approach a little bit. It was all written by the time that was done, and then I was just drawing, drawing, drawing. I had so many requests and interviews and travel plans. I was supposed to go to Beijing, I was supposed to go to Dubai, I was supposed to do two speeches at the summer American Library Association meeting, and obviously once Covid hit I couldn’t go anywhere. So I literally worked anywhere from March 16, when the quarantine started, and I would stay up till 3, 4, 5, 6 a.m. every morning until I finished Class Act on June 16. I handed it in and they went right to press.
I have to say that the quarantine has been a blessing in disguise for me in that particular case. I had nothing to do but work and write it and rewrite it. I was able to think of nothing else but that. I think it’s a better book than New Kid, and I think I’m a better writer having worked with an editor for a year. I learned a lot.
Class Act by Jerry Craft. HarperCollins/Quill Tree, $22.99 Oct. 6 ISBN 978-0-06-288551-7