Cartoonist Jerry Craft‘s middle grade graphic novel, New Kid, was released in 2019, and last year became the first graphic novel ever to be awarded the John Newbery Medal as “the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year.” The graphic novel follows seventh-grader Jordan as he enters a new school and finds himself one of only a few students of color in his class. A sequel graphic novel, Class Act, was released in 2020, and quickly shot to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and found its way onto a number of year-end “Best Of” lists. Now both books have been pulled from a Texas school district’s libraries, and a speaking event with Craft scheduled for earlier this week was cancelled, after parents expressed concerns over the themes present in the books.
Earlier this week the Houston Chronicle reported that the Katy Independent School District in Katy, TX had cancelled a planned Zoom chat between Craft and a group of 3rd through 5th graders after Bonnie Anderson, the mother of a student, read both New Kid and Class Act and determined that the books espoused Critical Race Theory, the academic study of systemic racism within the United States. Anderson created a petition on change.org that garnered 500 signatures before being pulled by the platform for violating the site’s terms of service. Soon after Katy ISD cancelled the scheduled Craft presentation, and pulled both of Craft’s books from their libraries “pending the outcome of a review committee.”
Yesterday, Craft issued a statement via the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. While the statement does not make any direct mention of the events in Katy, TX, it stresses that the experiences Jordan has in New Kid were inspired by Craft’s own experiences growing up:
Many aspects of my life have changed drastically since my book New Kid became the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal. But through it all, what has not changed are my goals for my books: helping kids become the kind of readers that I never was; letting kids see themselves on my pages; and showing kids of color as just regular kids.
As an African American boy who grew up in Washington Heights in New York City, I almost never saw kids like me in any of the books assigned to me in school. Books aimed at kids like me seemed to deal only with history or misery. That’s why it has always been important to me to show kids of color as just regular kids, and to create iconic African American characters like Jordan Banks from New Kid. I hope that readers of all ages will see the kindness and understanding that my characters exhibit and emulate those feelings in their day-to-day lives.
When I first set out to write and illustrate New Kid, I knew there would be giant hurdles to overcome. But I was confident that I was the right person to create this book, for the simple reason that I had experienced many of the same things my protagonist Jordan Banks had. I wanted to illustrate the things that kids like me had to face on a daily basis–like teachers confusing you with another kid of color, or classmates being afraid to come to your house because they assume you live in a bad neighborhood. These things are a lot for a kid to deal with. Oh, and you still have to get good grades! To counteract these stressful moments, I added elements such as strong values, loving families, very supportive friends, and plenty of humor.
I would like to offer a special thank you to the many teachers, librarians, students, and parents who love and champion my books. You have changed my life, in the same way that I hope to have changed yours. And to my readers and fans around the world who tell me how much they relate to my characters, I can’t put into words how much your support means to me.
Earlier this year The Washington Post described Critical Race Theory as “a catchall phrase [used by Conservative politicians and activitis] for nearly any examination of systemic racism in the present. Critical race theory is often portrayed as the basis of race-conscious policies, diversity trainings and education about racism, regardless of how much the academic concept actually affects those efforts.” In June Texas enacted a law prohibiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools; the law was strengthened further just last month.
What will come of the Katy ISD’s review of Craft’s books remains to be seen. In the meantime the district has said that an event with Craft may still be held as long as it is “hosted outside of the instructional day,” and that students are still free to read New Kid and Class Act outside of school. They’ll just have to find the books somewhere other than their school library, I suppose.