Read this over the weekend and it was, as the cover promises, an absolute joy. A wonderful collection of stories celebrating Black boyhood written by some of today’s most captivating authors. Some I was already familiar with — my main dude Jason Reynolds; fantasy darling P. Djèlí Clark — for most, though, this was my first experience with their work, but I will definitely be checking out more of their stuff from now on.
Honestly, most of the stories delivered, but some standouts:
- “There’s Going to Be a Fight In the Cafeteria on Friday and You Better Not Bring Batman” by Lamar Giles, which read exactly like an episode of Craig of the Creek and was just one of the most wholesome things I’ve ever read. (Also for having the absolute best title in the collection.)
- “The Legendary Lawrence Cobbler” by Julian Winters, for some lovely bit of queer representation.
- “First-Day Fly” by Jason Reynolds, for having the collection’s perhaps most simplistic story (a kid getting ready for his first day back to school) be also its most playful in terms of style (it’s written in the second person).
- “Coping” by Tochi Onyebuchi, for being the skateboarding story of my dreams. Also one of the first effective pieces of fiction I’ve read that deals with the pandemic.
- “The Gender Reveal” by George M. Johnson, for bringing the nonbinary rep and also the tears.⠀
- “Our Dill” by Justin A. Reynolds, for being the funniest of the lot.⠀
- “Percival and the Jab” by P. Djèlí Clark, for bringing Jumbies back into my life and leaving me wanting more.⠀
These stories are framed by vignettes written by Kwame Mbalia, the collection’s editor. They follow a griot (a West African storyteller and musician, here presented as a sort of wizard, because that’s what artists are) and his young apprentice as they travel through worlds collecting joy, which they store in a massive jar, to be used for later. They succeed, needless to say. Black Boy Joy is a beautiful collection.
New Kid follows Jordan Banks, a twelve-year-old kid about to start the seventh grade. A budding cartoonist, Jordan wishes for nothing more than to go to art school, but his parents, wishing him to have better opportunities than they had, decide to send him to a more affluent school. A prestigious private school, to be exact. A school where Jordan is one of the few kids of color. Being the new kid is hard enough, but this, in addition to coming from a more modest background than most of his peers, means dealing with a bunch of unwelcome challenges — not least of which being general ignorance and racism — as Jordan just tries to go about his days, trying to figure things out.⠀
I really enjoyed New Kid. While I was not a huge fan of the artwork itself, the story and the writing definitely won me over. I really loved — and admired — how it maintained a light and fun tone while also exploring some heavy themes. It’s a deceptively casual book in this way. There are depictions of class difference, of code-switching as a person of color, of casual racism and microaggressions, of privilege and lack thereof — and they are all portrayed in the same easy-going manner. Underneath this layer of mellow, though, there’s a current of frustration and exasperation that runs all the way through, which makes this casual story lose none of its pointed poignancy. Because being a person of color in this world sometimes means keeping your cool even during the most uncomfortable of times, even if you’re a child.⠀
But these weighty subjects don’t make up the whole of the story. Just as they don’t make up the lives of the kids who have to deal with them. One of the central themes in New Kid has to do with Jordan’s frustration with books about kids of color being extremely limited in scope: books about white kids can be about anything and still expected to be relatable; books about Black kids can only be about Serious Issues and are expected to be read only by Black kids. Books about white kids can be fun; books about Black kids have to be severe and gritty. Jordan thinks this is extremely unfair nonsense. Because, yes, while kids like him may have to deal with more complicated situations than most others — at the end of the day they’re also… just kids. Normal and goofy and beautiful and awkward and nerdy and clever kids who would love to do nothing more than just live and have fun and be happy and to see other kids like them doing likewise. This doesn’t mean that books about Serious Issues are not important, only that reality is far more complex, and stories about said reality should reflect it accordingly. Because representation is important. This is what Craft does with New Kid, and does it elegantly. It’s my favorite aspect of this story.
It’s also a book that’s just funny and clever, which is what instantly hooks you. Jordan and his group of friends are instantly likeable and relatable. The art, as I said, wasn’t my favorite, but Craft’s storytelling is clear and concise, and the book has great pacing because of it.⠀
It’s another one of those books I wish I could give to my younger self. Which is something I often find myself saying about a lot of the kid’s books I’ve recently read. I think that’s an inevitable thought to have, though, as someone who spent their childhood reading nothing much at all, after reading a particularly great children’s book. There’s a sense of deprivation — of having missed out — and wanting to go back and fix that. It’s bittersweet, but in a positive way, you know?⠀
I digress. ⠀
New Kid is a fine book. It deserved to win the Newbery Medal, and I can’t wait to see what that means for the future of graphic novels and children’s fiction in general.