Award-Winning Author Inspires New Love of Reading for Local Students
BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
Anything is possible. That’s what award-winning author, illustrator and self-proclaimed “nice guy” Jerry Craft aims to instill in students through his published works and visits to schools across the United States.
Craft, best known for his “New Kid” trilogy of graphic novels, made his latest stop in Opelika on May 17, where he spoke to nearly 750 seventh- and eighth-graders in a packed auditorium at Opelika Middle School. The students laughed, cheered and listened closely as Craft paced the stage, recounting his journey from a young student who “hated reading” to someone now living a life bigger than his dreams.
“To come to a place like this and see the energy — like, to go in that auditorium where they’re chanting ‘Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!’ — you can’t help but know that what you’re doing, what you’ve spent the last year of your life on, is worthwhile,” Craft said.
Craft came prepared with a visual presentation, props, jokes and plenty of personal anecdotes, as well as an oversized paper pad he used to demonstrate some of his illustrating skills. He gifted those illustrations — some with direct references to OMS — to the school following his presentation.
“We thought he gave just a great presentation, and the kids loved it,” said Becky Brown, public relations coordinator for Opelika City Schools.
Craft was born in Harlem, New York, and grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, just like the main character Jordan Banks from his graphic novel, “New Kid.” He spoke of the frustration he felt as he struggled to find books with characters of color to which he could relate — part of the reason he struggled to find interest in books overall, he said.
“Most of the books at that time that featured kids who looked like me were kind of depressing, right?” he told the Opelika students. “It was history, or it was misery — so I never saw myself in books. … So then I started to see, ‘OK, if I saw myself a little bit more in books, maybe I would read a little bit more,’ but I didn’t for a long time.”
In fact, the only books Craft said he enjoyed as a child were Marvel comic books.
“Because I was not a reader, I never really considered myself a writer until I was probably an adult,” he explained. “One of the cool things is, I started doing comic strips because comic strips — I could do the fun stuff, drawing, but I didn’t have to do a lot of writing because, again, I didn’t think of myself as a writer at that point.”
Several publishers passed on Craft’s comic, “Mama’s Boyz,” before he decided to learn how to self-publish it, which he did in 1997.
“I’m not going to lie — I did feel rejected,” he recalled. “But there are times in your life when people are not going to believe in you, and it will be up to you.”
Although the road wasn’t easy, taking that action opened more doors for Craft, he said. He met “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney, got invited to illustrate for Scholastic, “Mama’s Boyz” became a five-time recipient of the African American Literary Award, and in 2019 “New Kid” was published by HarperCollins.
“New Kid” went on to become the first graphic novel to receive the Newbery Medal. It also earned the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Author Award and became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller — only to be knocked down to the No. 2 spot by its sequel, “Class Act.” The third installment, “School Trip,” came out last month.
Craft said he is now working on his next graphic novel trilogy, and “New Kid” is in the beginning stages of being adapted into a live-action movie, thanks to Universal Pictures and SpringHill, a production company owned by LeBron James and Maverick Carter.
Following his presentation to the seventh- and eighth-graders, Craft visited all 16 sixth-grade classrooms to greet students and give away promotional cards featuring his book, each of which he had autographed and illustrated on the back.
“A lot of times, kids by sixth, seventh grade — everything is [about] what they can’t do, and they’re just shut down,” Craft said. “… You don’t realize that you can travel, you can do something that you enjoy doing — you know, there’s so many places to go, things to do, different foods, and I try to put that in my books, showing that there’s a big world out there, and we can get along [with] mutual respect. And those kind of things just makes a better place for everybody.”
Craft’s visit to Opelika Middle School wasn’t the only thing on his agenda for his Alabama trip, however. He also spoke at the Opelika Public Library that evening, where he signed copies of his book for students who were present.
Anna Jones, community relations specialist for Opelika Public Library, said the library team was excited to host Craft as part of its Author Talk series.
“We are just so excited to have him here [to show] how important graphic novels are to get kids to read,” she said. “… The story of ‘New Kid’ is such a good one for a lot of kids in our area.”
To learn more about Craft and his published works, visit www.jerrycraft.com/.