Winner of the Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award, and Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature!
Diversity seems to be the major theme for the Newbery panelists of late. The last three winners have all been stories of middle school kids learning to be comfortable in their own skin and with others who are different. New Kid by Jerry Craft tackles the topic head-on and has the distinction of being the very first graphic novel to win the coveted prize.
The story is simple: Jordan Banks is an artsy seventh-grader going to a prestigious private school for the first time. He'd rather be at an art school and at first feels lost and alone, but he gradually forms a few connections and eventually comes into his own as he stands up for a friend. This act gives others the courage to speak up, and an injustice is prevented.
The setting and theme bring the nuance. Jordan is a minority from the Washington Heights neighborhood in NYC attending the upscale Riverdale Academy Day School with financial aid. The school is an intentional melting pot for diversity: Liam and Andy are rich white kids; Drew and Maury are black; Alex, Ramon, Alexandra and Ashley round out the group. No one is an intentional bully or mean-spirited—but all of the kids have private fears and preconceptions about others that lead to racial tension. And the teachers, trying too hard to be PC, don't always help matters.
A couple of things we really liked:
While the story is from a minority view point, Craft goes out of his way to show that feeling lost and alone is not limited to minorities. His treatment of both Liam and Andy have lessons to teach. Also, the story of Alexandra gives a touching insight to sometimes odd behavior.
Aesthetically, as far as graphic novels go, we didn't think this was all that impressive, but it has its moments. As both writer and illustrator, Craft brings a deft sense of humor and a lightness to the story. Each chapter title alludes to a major book or movie and occasionally he will take a moment to lead you astray before bringing you back to the story with a visual joke. Also, in nearly every chapter, he uses sections from Jordan's sketchbook to share his point of view. At first, these just seem like a fun extra, but eventually he weaves these sections into the plot itself, giving Jordan the chance to share his perspective with a dismissive teacher.
Overall, although we'd have a hard time saying this book deserved the Newbery Medal, we think it merits a place on our shelves. It definitely does not come from a Christian (or home schooling!) perspective and has some cringe-worthy moments, but it offers some realistic and fair insights into the lives of many modern kids, encouraging what we would call community without being preachy in tone. We were pleased and surprised that it managed to completely avoid modern gender issues. Jordan and his friends are just kids, who as they grow and learn, all become "new kids."
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