Books

Why You Should Read New Kid, A John Newbery Award-Winning Graphic Novel

Pros

  • Interesting main character
  • Cool art style
  • Good message
  • Handles serious topics well for middle schoolers
  • Well developed cast

Cons

  • Pace could be slow at times
  • It isn’t overly dramatic
  • Somewhat anticlimactic

Have you ever been the new kid? I have been a few times. It can be good and bad, but it isn’t easy at first. I remember meeting a bunch of people and having trouble keeping track of names. I switched schools twice in my life. I transfered from a public high school to a Catholic school when I was in fifth grade, and I started attending a public school in eighth grade. Both of these were my middle school years. Eighth grade was the hardest to transition to, so I can empathize with Jordan there. It takes a while to figure out where you fit in. Even after the first few months, it doesn’t always get easier. Right away, I can empathize with the protagonist, Jordan Banks who is a new seventh grader student at a prestigious private school called Riverdale Day Academy. New Kid was written by Jerry Craft.

I grew up loving to read, and I especially loved graphic novels and comic books. I heard about this book and decided to check it out and write a review. I haven’t read many of the Newbery Award Winners to be honest, I’ve probably read too few, but this one was a great choice. New Kid won the 2020 Newbery Award for the Most Distinguished Contribution of Literature for Children.

A I checked out Craft’s website and to learn more about him. Craft grew up reading comic books and wants to help other kids to experience the same thing.

“One of the most transformative things a child can cultivate is a love of reading.”

Jerry Craft

I also watched Craft’s interviews on his website; I would recommend checking them out. He talks more about his experiences with books and about the story as a whole.

I remember how I felt that way when I was younger. I loved reading as a kid–grabbing a book and jumping into a character’s life. The storytelling for New Kid was good, and I don’t read graphic novels or middle-grade fiction very often anymore, but I’m glad I checked this one out.

New Kid begins when Jordan Banks, a Black seventh-grader from Washington Heights, starts attending Riverdale Academy Day School, a prestigious private school.

This wasn’t his initial dream. Jordan loves drawing comics and wants to be an artist when he grows up. This book is semi-autobiographical, and Jerry Craft wrote New Kid partially based on his experiences growing up in Washington Heights. He wanted to be an artist ever since he was a kid, but his parents thought he couldn’t make a living from it, so they sent him to The Fieldston School. Craft went on to the School of Visual Arts for college and got a BA in Fine Arts. His story isn’t exactly the same as Jordan’s, and he was also inspired his sons, who also attend a mostly white private school.

Jordan, like Craft, dreamed of attending art school. Technically, Jordan can’t start until 9th grade, so that puts his art studies on the back burner for a bit. For now, his mother wants him to go to Riverdale because of its great reputation. Jordan isn’t too happy to start a new middle school; he’s also disappointed that, as his father points out, Riverdale Day Academy also isn’t racially diverse.

Riverdale Academy Day School is a pretty typical middle school, Many of them are also pretty wealthy, they go on ski trips and stuff like that and the students wear pink most of the time. Other than that, Jordan’s middle school is pretty typical. I’m not sure if there is a middle school that is not like middle school, at least in the US. No matter where you go, I’m not sure anyone can escape the petty social dynamics, messy cafeterias, and annoying homework assignments.

Jordan is in the middle of all this, and New Kid is primarily a story of a kid finding his place in a new school and learning more about himself and his relationship with the world around him. Jordan is wondering about who he is compared to his peers and how he can be himself in a school where he feels a pressure to conform. At Riverdale Academy, he meets students with eccentric personalities. There is Alexandra, a girl who carries a puppet around, Maury, a geeky band kid, and an obnoxious bully named Andy. Jordan also meets a couple of guys that seem pretty cool–Liam and Drew.

Although he finds friends to hang out with, life at Riverdale Day Academy is difficult. While Jordan is navigating middle school and figuring life out, he also has to deal with a series of racial microaggressions from the students and teachers around him.

For example, his friend Drew is also Black, and a White teacher frequently calls Drew the wrong name, Deandre, after another black student that was in his class before. This teacher has Drew in her class all year, but she still never makes an effort to correct and remember his name. We see Deandre later and the two kids just don’t look alike. Teachers also call Jordan by the wrong name sometimes.

They mix up his name with a boy named Maury, who plays in the band. No one tries to change, even when students outright correct them. This isn’t just a problem with students. One teacher that has been at Riverdale for fourteen years and he still called “coach Rick” by another teacher. He doesn’t coach anything and the teacher didn’t bother to notice.

Jordan also navigates relationships with friends at the predominately white Riverdale with his friendships in his Black neighborhood. In one section, Jordan describes his experiences taking the bus in Washington Heights compared to the bus on the way to Riverdale Day Academy. He is expected to look tougher on the Washington Heights bus. But on the way to Riverdale, he needs to look laid back and chill.

The story talks about issues that occur in Jordan’s day-to-day life in a way that is easy for middle schoolers to understand. It can open up conversations about race between kids, between kids and parents, and honestly with anyone. It could be a good book to read in a classroom. I wish it was something we read at that age. It is a fun read that touches on important issues that not everyone is aware of–I know I wasn’t.

The art style is also cool. The comics are funny, and Craft doesn’t use color for a few of the side scenes where Jordan explains a certain rule or idea like “A Dude Pyramid: A Guide To The Cafeteria Hierarchy” or “Jordan’s Tips For Taking the Bus.” The drawings are in the same art style overall, but they look like they came right out of Jordan’s notebook.

The relationships between Jordan and his friends were sweet and fun to watch. Jordan, Drew, and Liam, a white student, end up all becoming friends. Jordan’s parents are also very supportive. They also have conflicts and disagreements like any other parents. For example, Jordan’s parents don’t initially agree on whether or not Jordan should go to Riverdale. His father wasn’t quite sure at first, but Jordan’s mom wanted him to go.

Both of their concerns are valid. We see how Jordan’s mom thinks it is a great opportunity that he should take advantage of–Jordan got into a prestigious school and his mom wishes she’d had that opportunity at his age–while his father is worried about Jordan leaving behind his old school and friends and moving to a school where most students are White.

I also liked Jordan’s relationship with his grandfather. They go out for Chinese and talk about Jordan opens up to him about how difficult school can be sometimes, and his grandfather comforts him and tells him that it is okay to be himself.

One of the core messages is to be kind to other kids regardless of differences. Jordan ends up befriending the girl who carries a puppet around at the end. She isn’t made fun of or mocked and we learn why she carries a puppet around. Middle school is a time when lots of students are awkward and just have different interests. She could have easily been the butt of the joke the entire time, but she’s not. She’s a pretty cool kid and super nice.

Middle school is difficult and it is nice to see kids bonding regardless of popularity. I feel like this is a message we need to see more often. Especially with kids at that age. That’s not to say that the bullies all apologize and all is perfect, but Jordan and his friends treat other kids with kindness and respect.

If there are any cons for this book, I would say that the pace is a bit slow. Jordan is going through normal middle school stuff, and there isn’t a ton of drama or a high point of tension. Graphic novels usually have that moment, and it can be cool to see a big dramatic scene in ink. Since it wasn’t too long, it didn’t bother me that much that it wasn’t as dramatic. Reading this book felt like watching Jordan go through life. After all, a lot can happen in one day. His interactions with family, friends, and classmates felt real and their relationships were layered and complex and I wanted to learn more.

I think that is why, while this book is written for a middle-school audience, anyone can enjoy Jordan’s story. This book isn’t too long of a read either, and I’d recommend it if you’re looking for a good way to get back into reading after a slump. I know I read this during the semester and it was refreshing to see pictures and graphics after a day of classes. It is also a comic book that I feel like adults would enjoy reading. The message is good, and the book tackles issues well. I’m glad I was able to read this one, even though I’m not within the target demographic. I loved comic strips and books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, and Big Nate back in the early 2010s, but I’m not sure I would reread any of them or recommend them to most people.

New Kid was written to tell a story that Craft didn’t see growing up. Jordan and his friends go to the middle school book fair and see few stories with Black protagonists. He especially can’t find any comedies science fiction, fantasy, or just fun stories with a protagonist that looks like him. Jerry Craft had the same experience as Jordan, so he decided to write New Kid. Craft also wrote a published a sequel in 2020 called Class Act, starring Jordan’s friend Drew.

Links:

To learn more about Jerry Craft and his books, check out his website.

Have you read New Kid? If so, what did you think? Did you read many graphic novels growing up? Let me know down in the comments below.