Everyone has been the new person. Even if you’ve never changed residences, there are plenty of unfamiliar situations to enter for the first time. People frequently change jobs, schools, and social groups. Sometimes, you get lucky and everyone is in the same situation; when you start kindergarten, for example, chances are high that everyone is new.
Then there are times when you enter an environment so foreign you can’t help but wonder whether you’ve entered some strange pocket dimension. If that sounds familiar, you’ll appreciate New Kid by Jerry Craft.
New Kid is a semiautobiographical graphic novel focusing on Jordan Banks, a boy living in Washington Heights and starting seventh grade at an elite prep school. Life at Riverdale Academy Day School is overwhelming. He’s one of only a few Black students, he’s on scholarship, and Riverdale is significantly larger than his previous school. As he works to acclimate to his new environment, he faces the hurdles of mandatory sports participation (he’d rather draw), teachers (one unconsciously racist, another overly afraid of offending), a standard-issue prep school jerk, juggling very different social circles, and his own assumptions.
The book compellingly encompasses an academic year at Jordan’s new school in a completely satisfactory way. Jordan’s I’m-not-totally-sold-on-this-but-I’m-willing-to-give-it-my-best-try attitude makes him relatable, and reminded me of every time I’ve landed in a strange environment. The supporting cast of characters—such as the mom who wants to give her son all the advantages she can, the rich boy with absent parents, or the wacky girl who always wears a sock puppet on her hand—are complicated and interesting instead of two-dimensional tropes.
While New Kid tells the story of Jordan’s year, it also deals with the complicated politics of being “special” and how microaggressions reinforce feelings of being “other.” For example, in his first week, Jordan is asked whether he lives with just his mom. Drew, another new Black student who starts at the same time, is constantly called by another student’s name (Deandre) by one of the teachers, Ms. Rawle.
When you’re “special,” it means you’re different from your surroundings. Often times, it means different expectations or treatment. Throughout the book, Andy, the prep school jerk, calls people “dawg” without repercussion. When Drew calls Jordan “dawg” in the context of joking around, Ms. Rawle instantly scolds Drew (while simultaneously calling him Deandre) for calling Andy a “dog,” frustrating Drew to the point of anger. Special, in this case, means unfairly applied standards.
If you’re someone who isn’t used to being “special,” it can be hard to understand why microaggressions are so often considered akin to death by a thousand papercuts. New Kid gives an accessible path to understanding for both young readers and older fans of graphic novels. I loved this book and will be making this a part of the quickly growing “shared library” shelf in our house. The target age is listed as grades three through seven, though there’s nothing objectionable that would exclude a precocious reader.
Author Jerry Craft is no stranger to the comic world. He’s the creator behind Mama’s Boyz, a cartoon syndicated from 1995 to 2013, and is a cofounder and coproducer of the Schomburg Center’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival. I’m looking forward to any future projects he puts out.
New Kid is available now from HarperCollins.