Did you like to read when you were a kid?
Definitely not. I only read Marvel Comics and anything I HAD to read for school. I remember running to my local candy store almost every week to buy the latest issue of Spider-Man or Marvel Team Up. But even though I bought them, I didn’t always read them. I had never heard of the term “reluctant reader” back then, but that’s exactly what I was. Occasionally, I would read my comics cover to cover, but those were mainly the issues that had more action scenes and fewer pages with our heroes as their secret identities. Those pages I would quickly scan in order to get the gist.
Even when I created my Mama’s Boyz comic strip, I chose to have the family own and operate an indie bookstore. I guess I wanted to expose kids to the positive feelings of books that I never had as a kid.
What inspired you to become a writer?
When I was young, I never had a book that I bonded with. Or absolutely loved, like how my two sons and their friends loved the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. As I got older, I felt that the lack of books with characters who looked and acted like me and my friends, was probably the biggest reason. So I decided to make the books I wished I had when I was a kid.
Did you always like to draw?
No, I always LOVED to draw. Ever since I was old enough to hold a crayon and know not to try to eat it, drawing has been, and continues to be, one of my favorite things to do.
What was your middle school experience like? How much Jerry is there in Jordan Banks from New Kid?
New Kid is a story fueled by decades of research, first as me being a kid going to a private school, then years later as a father of two private-school sons. So all of the subtleties and nuances that I touch on are from my real-life experience.
The whole “wanting to go to art school but getting forced to go to a predominately white private school” is my life. But for me, it was just high school (grades 9-12). Before that, I went to smaller private schools that were probably 96% African American.
My sons, on the other hand, have always gone to PWIs. So in many aspects, it was easier for them because they began at the starting line. Plus, they had two parents who watched closely and gave them an idea of what to expect as they got older.
My parents just pushed me into a freezing cold pool and just figured sooner or later I’d learn how to swim.
As an African American author / illustrator, do you feel pressure to represent your community?
It’s not a pressure as much as it is an honor. There are so many wonderful stories by African American authors and illustrators that I have read over the years, and I am truly ecstatic whenever I get a chance to add to their narratives. My personal choice is to tell contemporary tales that serve as “mirrors, windows, and sliding doors” full of humor and hope. I think that everyone needs to see just how varied our culture is, so I try to tell stories that may not have always been the focus.
Is it difficult to try to be funny while tackling serious subjects such as class and race?
It’s really funny (funny strange, not funny “ha ha”), but somewhere down the line, that became my niche. When I was doing my Mama’s Boyz comic strip (that I did for two decades for King Features,) I talked about everything from diabetes to literacy to teenage pregnancy. So by the time I sat down to work on New Kid, I think I had honed my skills enough to know when to be funny and when to be serious. There’s a fine line between using humor to make an issue seem less polarizing, as opposed to seeming like you’re ridiculing someone or something they may believe in. That is never my intent.
What was one of the goals that you set, and feel you achieved, with New Kid? And what are you most proud of?
First of all, I set out to create something that I would have fun doing, and I had an absolute blast! Second, I wanted to show a wide range of black life. Not only is New Kid the story about an African American boy, Jordan Banks, who is desperately trying to fit into a predominately white private school, but there is also a lot about his struggle still trying to fit in with the other black kids from his neighborhood. There are so many kids, and adults even, who have always felt as if they are “too black” to fit in with their white peers, and “too white” to fit in with their black peers. So, in essence, Jordan is a fish out of both waters. So I guess he’s like a mudfish.
One of the things that I’m most proud of is showing so many different types of African Americans in the same story, while showing that they all have a right to exist. There are no bad guys. Jordan lives in a brownstone in a middle class neighborhood with both of his parents in the Washington Heights section of New York City; his new classmate Drew lives in the Bronx with his grandmother; meanwhile Maury lives in Riverdale and has only known life in private school; and Kirk is Jordan’s friend from around his block who goes to public school.
No ONE character is always right, nor are they always wrong. And I feel like that’s important for both kids AND adults to see.
What is your favorite scene in New Kid?
I think when Jordan is waiting for his Dad (who is running late) to pick him up from school (pages 180-187). Then, to make matters worse, it begins to rain. But just when Jordan thinks that it can’t get any worse…BAM! Here comes Alexandra, the kid who everyone thinks is probably the weirdest kid in the whole grade. And she sits down next to him. The only good thing is that she offers to share her umbrella.
I like this scene because I “Crafted it” (pun intended) to take my readers through a whole range of emotions. First, it’s the awkwardness of having to talk to someone who you really don’t want to talk to. Then there’s the slow realization that maybe it’s not as bad as you thought. And finally, there’s the comfort that happens when you open your mind, and your heart, to see who that person really is! And that many of your preconceived notions couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that’s an important lesson for both kids and adults to learn. Plus, I put in one silly panel to get my readers to laugh and relax.
What has been the best reaction from a reader, so far?
I have had such AMAZING reactions that it’s difficult to choose. I’ve already gotten emails from moms whose kids have told them, “I am Jordan Banks,” which continues to give me goosebumps. Every day, since the book launched on Feb. 5, 2019, has been like Christmas morning to me. I open up my email and never know what is waiting for me, but it’s already been a magnificent journey.
I’ve received emails from kids saying how much they love the book. And from parents who are stunned that their supposedly “reluctant readers” read the book three times in ONE DAY!
And seen fan drawings of the characters all over social media.
BUT, if I had to choose ONE, it was this message that I got from a mom: “My son was at your event today. He has autism and usually has difficulty with crowds. His teacher told me he was so excited to meet you and was able to ask you a few questions! Thank you for doing something as small as answering a question, it meant a great deal to my son! Thank you!”
And what made it even more special was that she sent me a photo of her son holding the book.
Can you tell us one more thing we may not know about New Kid, your writing style, or yourself?
The house where Jordan Bank lives is actually the house that I grew up in. I also used a lot of my childhood friends’ names throughout the book, as well as named Jordan’s old school (St. Harwell’s) after my editor. I also threw in the name of my agent and lots of former classmates. And I drew a picture of both of my sons. So I guess I’ll be able to see who actually reads the book.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received regarding writing?
The best piece of advice I ever got was from a friend of mine who read an early manuscript of one of my middle grade novels and told me: “don’t tell it, show it.” That was a big aha moment for me. So when I did New Kid, I used a slightly altered version which was, “If I show it (in my drawing), then I don’t HAVE to tell it.” For example, if I have Jordan Banks really enjoying a glass of water, I would rather show him smiling, or licking his lips, or having a giant heart over his head. That way, instead of saying something like, “Wow, this water is really good,” I can have him say something that will help to advance the story. The art and the words should not be redundant, they should be complementary.
When using both written word and visual art to tell a story, how does the editing process work?
Ideally, I like to submit thumbnails (word balloons included) of the entire book. So the first stage of editing is to get the story arc and all the supporting beams in place. Once that’s done, each stage of editing gets smaller and smaller. The final edits are more about proofreading and making sure the art is consistent throughout. I have to say that Andrew Harwell Eliopulos, my editor at HarperCollins, really gave me the freedom to tell the story that I wanted to tell. I had heard many horror stories from peers over the years who were forced to make major changes to their scripts, so I have to admit that I was extremely nervous. I kept waiting for some major suggestion that would suck the life out of my story. And much to my surprise, and pleasure, it never came!
What message do you hope Jordan passes on to the kids reading your story?
In my ideal scenario, Jordan would not only pass on a message to kids but to teachers, librarians and parents as well. And that message is when you see kids of color, make sure you see them as kids first. Because they are! They like to laugh and play and use their imaginations, but to me they are constantly bombarded with so many things that force them to grow up at a much faster rate than other kids. Their books. Their movies. Their music. Everything is such a heavy reminder of how terrible their lives are going to be. Even when that is not the situation that they’re in. Let them keep their magic. They have the rest of their lives to be grown.