The ability to write about somber material with heart and humor is a rare skill. But for Jarrett J. Krosoczka, his singular adeptness at this talent elevates what could be considered overwhelmingly dark tales and makes them joyful. In his previous graphic memoir, Hey, Kiddo (Graphix/Scholastic), Krosoczka depicted his teenage years as the child of an addict. His new book, Sunshine, also follows Krosoczka’s teenage ink-and-pen twin as he takes on a challenging role. 

During his high school years, Krosoczka took part in a unique program that involved counseling terminally ill children and their families at Camp Sunshine. Initially apprehensive, yet eager, about the potential darkness surrounding such a challenging environment, Krosoczka and his fellow Camp Sunshine volunteers’ outlook took an extraordinary turn as they got to know the campers. Rather than encountering constant despair, he discovered a wellspring of resilience and determination that challenged his own perceptions. Even in the darkest of circumstances, Krosoczka could find the glimmers of hope in unexpected corners. 

Accompanied by the usual camp counselor adventures like spooky campfire tales, wilderness challenges, and an unforgettable (albeit aromatic) mascot costume, Krosoczka had the opportunity to connect with exceptional children facing extraordinarily tragic health situations. In this new book, Krosoczka welcomes readers into the day of the life of a summer counselor at Camp Sunshine. I had the opportunity to chat with Krosoczka about the new book, his recollection of his summer at Camp Sunshine, and if this gloomy subject is appropriate for young adult readers. 

Courtesy of Scholastic.

A.J. FROST: Hi Jarrett. Thank you for taking the time to chat today. Your new book Sunshine takes place during the events of your previous work Hey Kiddo. Did you know at the outset of Hey Kiddo that you wanted to explore your time as a camp counselor as a separate project? Or did revisiting your history spark an interest in writing an independent book?

JARRETT J. KROSOCZKA: Thank you so much for having me!

The plot of Sunshine was initially featured in a very long, out-of-left-field chapter in Hey, Kiddo. That chapter got unruly and sent the main character [teenage Jarrett] on a total side quest. My editor, David Levithan, encouraged me to edit out that chapter and save it for another memoir, should I ever want to further explore writing about my own life experiences.  

FROST: What do you remember most about your time as camp counselor?

KROSOCZKA: I remember how much fun I had with that work. It was so eye-opening and empowering to me as a young person.

FROST: In the book, you relate how your grandmother said that the work would be “depressing.” Why did you want to pursue this challenging teenage job?

KROSOCZKA: My high school focused on service, and small batches of seniors got sent up annually to volunteer at Camp Sunshine. You always hoped to do it when you were coming up at that high school. 

FROST: Piggybacking off my earlier question, how did you temper the often-melancholic situations of the kids and their families with humor? There are moments of levity sprinkled throughout the book, so was it difficult to strike that balance?

KROSOCZKA: Balancing the light with the heavy wasn’t challenging because that is life itself. And the light and the heavy certainly co-mingled for the families I tended to at camp. While these campers dealt with unimaginable health issues, they were all still kids and teens who thrived off goofing around.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka in his studio. Courtesy of Scholastic and Studio JJK.

FROST: Much of Sunshine tackles difficult subject matter, particularly terminal diseases in children and the effects it has on their families. In the world of YA comics—of which most of your work is situated—what do you think of the notion that there should be more books that tackle death and dying? Is that appropriate? 

KROSOCZKA: Death is a natural part of life, as are many topics that adults might be uncomfortable with. Books and comics are a safe space to experience challenging truths, and like it or not, we will all deal with many of these heavier topics in life. As a parent, I would much rather my children be made aware of the unknown through literature before they are faced with it in life. 

FROST: Do you think that there should be subjects that are still taboo for younger readers?

KROSOCZKA: I think that each reader will have varying degrees of what they are ready for, and all topics should be available to them when they are ready to tackle such subjects. You can take Hey, Kiddo, my first memoir, which isn’t in elementary school libraries, given that its intended audience is 12 and up. However, many readers younger than 12 might be walking a similar path as I did with an addicted parent—and those families should absolutely have the right to access the book via a public library. 

FROST: Have any of the campers you depict in the book—or their families—reached out to you since this book has been announced? Have any shared their stories with you and, if so, did that help fill in gaps that you may have forgotten?

KROSOCZKA: Many campers and families featured in the book read early drafts of the book. They vetted anything that might have featured their name or likeness. And my book tour was totally a camp reunion at almost every stop along the way! It was a beautiful thing.

FROST: Hey, Kiddo and Sunshine work splendidly as complementary coming-of-age works. Does revisiting your teenage years inspire you in your work moving now and moving forward?

KROSOCZKA: Absolutely! Creating Hey, Kiddo taught me that we aren’t any one thing. Our lives have an infinite amount of beginnings, middles, and ends.

A scene from “Sunshine.” Courtesy of Scholastic.

FROST: For the reader who may be fighting a terminal disease now, what lesson or piece of wisdom do you think they may glean from Sunshine?

KROSOCZKA: I hope that any readers with a terminal illness will read Sunshine and know their presence on this Earth has tremendous value. 

FROST: What is your next project? Are you still going to be working on memoir-based work? 

KROSOCZKA: Ahhhh… I cannot reveal any of that just yet. But in time….in time!

FROST: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

KROSOCZKA: Thank you for having me!

Sunshine is available now from Scholastic Graphix. Learn more about Jarrett’s work on his website and Instagram