Well. It’s cute. It’s relevant. It might even be important. It didn’t shine like a beacon, for me. It has a few issues. It also has a few awards.
The “new kid” of the graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft is Jordan, and he’s not new to his neighborhood or his house: he has moved schools, which is the kind of thing that happens all the time with urban kids, these days. There are some details based on the New York City school system here that not all of us will understand, but I believe that he has tested into a private school program and is accepted on scholarship? The school is not especially diverse and Jordan is a light-skinned Black student, which divides his parents before he even sets foot in the school. The following graphic novel follows Jordan’s first year in the middle school program at the fancy, mostly rich, high-performing school, focusing on his experience of it racially (and on a handful of the other student’s experiences, from a rich, white kid to some Latino kids, from another Black kid to a “different” little girl). There’s friendship. There’s lots to overcome. There’s plenty of internal and external conflict, though it’s mostly day-to-day and not too dramatic.
I’m torn between feeling like this book is too nuanced and not nuanced enough, which is an impossible situation, sure. But here’s what I mean. On one hand, I feel like it’s so subtle that a middle grades kid who has not experienced what’s going on in it from the perspective intended will run a big risk of not getting it, not understanding what the book is trying to say (which is partly things are not equal, and often awkward as butt—at best—and systemically racist—at worst. Despite a frequent farce of good intentions). On the other hand, some of the things the book has to say are not nuanced enough for me. They appear oversimplified, which is amplified when that oversimplification is repeated, repeatedly. For example, a Black child will learn from this book that people confuse him or her with other Black children because they don’t notice them and don’t care about them. While habitually misidentifying someone is certainly rude, a red flag, and should be addressed, the issue is much more complex, which can be seen when virtually any person of any color is in a minority situation anywhere: suddenly, everyone confuses them with the other person that looks anything like them. In other words, we generalize as a species, sometimes to our own detriment, and that is part of this conversation, not just “They don’t see you. They don’t care.” Also part of this conversation: it feels like they don’t see you and don’t care. Sure.
But beyond some of the things that stood out to me as oversimplified, there was a lot of complication and a lot of representation. New Kid has a lot to say. I can’t decide exactly, though, if in the end it has a positive or negative message. On the surface, it’s positive. Jordan, his closest friends, and his family, are all lovely people who are making the world a better place by being better people. But there also seems to be a more sinister thread running under the surface here, that I just couldn’t shake, emotionally, as I read. Perhaps it’s the anger that crops up in some of the characters, and perhaps that’s not really a bad thing. Feeling the feels is allowed. Understandable. Expected, even. But man does said character get so close to letting his anger eat him up a bit. In a way, I like this tension, but once again I ask myself, will middle grades kids get it?
There are, for sure, issues with the illustrations themselves. They’re just really imperfect. I want to like them, especially since I enjoy most of the characters and am curious about what’s going on in this school, but the drawings… Most of the time, they are just okay, but sometimes they’re distractingly not okay. Why didn’t they get fixed before publication? Unknown. One in particular haunts my dreams: in it, a character’s legs are coming out from their stomach, bent at impossible angles. Why!? My son also noticed problems with some of the illustrations, and brought it up to me. It made him leery of the story from page two.
So, overall I’m not sure what to say. I liked reading the book. It made me think. I found it hard to follow as someone with ADHD, but that’s just me and most graphic novels. My son was distracted by the mistakes in the drawings. I think New Kid has plenty to say into the void, but I’m not sure it says it well. On the other hand, you cozy up to these characters and so go along with them into their struggles, whether or not the issues are oversimplified or nuanced into oblivion. Hm, hm, hm. If you have a middle grades kid who likes graphic novels, add this one to his or her collection, but make sure you have a conversation about it.