New Kid: A Gifted African American in a Private Middle School

 
Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: Harper, 2019. Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King (writer) Medal, Kirkus Reviews Young Readers’ Literature annual $50,000 book prize. 
 
The most highly honored work of juvenile fiction in 2020 is Jerry Craft’s funny, poignant, and insightful graphic novel, New Kid. Craft’s novel should be required reading in colleges and universities for participants in teacher education programs, particularly for those instructors destined for middle schools. The cover design words tell it all, “Middle School is hard enough without being the New Kid.”
 
The eponymously named protagonist is Jordan Banks, an African-American gifted youth who loves the neighborhood charter school for the fine arts where the population (including Jordan) in his grade level is just 25 students. When Jordan is offered a full-tuition scholarship to one of New York City’s most prestigious K-12 private schools, his parents make a life-changing decision for him. (The plot is inter-generational as well as a coming-of-age story.)  Jordan will leave his modest neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City to travel by bus through a vast array of changing neighborhoods across the city to the Riverdale Academy Day School (nicknamed RAD) located in a super affluent neighborhood. The ultra chic private K-12 preparatory school with all its trappings of wealth and privilege and lack of diversity becomes as much a character in this marvelous novel as any of its students or faculty.
 
Jordan Banks is twelve years old. His parents, especially his mother, Ellice, see his future as being determined by success at the prestigious Riverdale Academy. In an attempt to keep harmony in the Banks’ household, Jordan’s father, Chuck, encourages Jordan to at least try his seventh-grade school year as a tuition-free student at RAD. As part of the elite school’s scholarship program, financial aid students are paired with established, wealthy classmates who initially serve as guides to newcomers. Jordan is paired with Liam Landers whose family has attended Riverdale for at least three generations. Jordan is startled at the number of campus buildings named after Liam’s family. 
 
The narration is arranged chronologically from Jordan’s first day in the seventh-grade (read Lower Form) until the closing school day at RAD and his return to his own neighborhood where his father runs the local community center. Jordan barely sets foot of the campus of Riverdale when he makes his first mistake. Many of the students, both males and females, wear RAD clothing in the color Jordan believes is pink. He is immediately corrected. The school color of Riverdale is not pink, but salmon. During his crucial first day, Jordan also becomes lost twice while trying to negotiate the vast campus of Riverdale; hence, he is also late to his new classes. He innocently violates the lunch room seating order that is a part of RAD’s caste system. Jordan ends up at the worst table “reserved” for the lowest of the low, new seventh-graders. He also meets his homeroom teacher, Miss Rawle, who is lamentably misguided about diversity. She is from the “Some of my best friends are…” mindset as regards multiculturalism.   
 
Jordan’s second day provides a glance at his long twice-daily city bus rides across town from Washington Heights to the upscale Riverdale neighborhood. The same day Ms. Rawle informs her homeroom students that the Academy requires participation in either the school musical or one of its many fall sports. Jordan chooses soccer and is assigned to the school’s absolutely worst scrub team (Lower Form B), the fifth out of five teams. Improbably, in his first game, Jordan accidentally scores the first goal any Lower Form B team has made in seven years. 
 
The fall semester moves forward through parent conferences, Thanksgiving dinner at home, the annual school-wide book fair where the overwhelmingly white faculty and administration prominently showcase books with African-American characters, a bizarre homeroom Secret Santa ritual, and finally the relief of Christmas at home and the joy of a family-oriented Kwanzaa celebration. 
 
The second semester begins as the wealthy tuition students compare notes to determine whom among the rich seventh-graders had the most glamorous vacation trip. This leads to the controversial dismissal of Collin, another financial aid student at RAD, who innocently accepted an invitation of holiday travel to Hawaii with the family of his super wealthy student guide, an act that is a clear violation of RAD rules. 
 
Jordan enrolls in his first (and seemingly lame) art class taught by Ms. Slate, an avante-garde artist extraordinaire. How will Jordan’s passion for cartoons fit in with Ms. Slate’s impressions of art?  As the school year slowly passes, Jordan develops bonding relationships with his classmates, even including the eccentric Alexandria. Confidentially, he discovers the real reason for her use of Muppets that she wears at all times on her left hand.
 
The spring semester is bumpy on at least three further occasions. Baseball proves to be an even worse choice of a required sport than soccer. A school lunch room mini-riot finally allows Jordan to unleash his true Batman (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne) persona as he challenges Miss Rawle who wrongfully blames Drew, one of the few African Americans in Jordan’s class, for pushing the seventh-grade bully, Andrew Peterson, the true villain of the lunchroom food fight. A further confrontation with Miss Rawle occurs after she finds Jordan’s super secret sketchbook and violates its clearly marked cardinal rule: PRIVATE! 
 
Nevertheless, life at Riverdale does improve. Jordan receives the ultimate compliment from his art teacher, Ms. Slate, who secretly uses one of his pieces of abstract artwork as the cover for the entire RAD, K-12 yearbook. 
 
The final day of school is both a positive summing up and a revelation. Jordan finally leaves his favorite hoodie (a kind of middle school security blanket) at home and shows up for the final day of seventh grade wearing shorts in RAD’s school color, salmon (really pink). 
 
Jordan celebrates the end of the school year with his favorite classmates Drew, Maury, Liam, and Alexandria. They wish each other great summer breaks and promise to see each other when RAD re-opens for a brand new year in the late summer. Jordan finally knows that he has found his rightful place at Riverdale Academy, yet it is also an important day to arrive back in his home neighborhood and to discover that there is still a place for him there. In spite of some setbacks, Jordan’s first year at the Riverdale Academy is golden, even if somewhat tarnished, and his journey is told straight from the heart. 
 
Craft uses the graphic novel format with rich color tones to move the story forward in vivid spreads. However, Jordan’s sketchbook entries reveal a boy that all the other characters (except for Miss Rawle) never see. Private thoughts about his life are revealed via his passion, black-and-white cartoons. The juxtaposition of Craft’s colorful art and story with Jordan’s less professional and colorless cartoons provide a fine balance of visual storytelling. Readers are never bored. The effect of merging Craft’s visions of Jordan’s first year at RAD interspersed with Jordan less glamorous, but highly personal sketches, provides readers with two stories rather than one. 
 
 
Home Activities
 
Jordan’s first year at Riverdale Academy ends on a high note despite some trials throughout his first year in middle school. His initial two days are especially dispiriting. Ask readers to imagine Jordan’s return to RAD for his eighth-grade school year. Using Jordan’s sketchbook format, children can write and illustrate his first two days upon his return to Riverdale Academy for a second year. 
 
During the Christmas holidays, Jordan’s parents create a family celebration of Kwanzaa in order to give him a sense of pride in his African American roots. Encourage children to research Kwanzaa online and then employ a graphic novel manner to highlight one or more of the holiday’s seven-day observances. 
 
Jordan’s weirdest classmates is Alexandria (Alex) who exhibits the peculiar behavior of always covering her left hand with a Muppet character such as Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. In one of the most heart-warming passages of New Kid, Alex confides in Jordan why she always covers her entire left hand with puppets. Invite readers to retell Alexandria’s story in a diary that she might keep.