Bestselling children’s author Jerry Craft laments book bans ahead of Raleigh visit
Ignoring the advice of literary friends, bestselling children’s author Jerry Craft reads every email, every book review and every social media post about his work. Craft dutifully responds to each.
After thousands of such interactions, the award-winning author — he won the prestigious Newberry Medal in 2020 — of the popular graphic novel “New Kid” doesn’t recall a single parent or teacher complaint about his work upsetting a child.
Instead, Craft told NC Newsline this week, that he more often hears from educators that his novels inspire nonreaders to pick up a book. Students have surprised teachers by asking them to read his work so they can discuss it with them later, he said.
Teachers grow emotional sharing stories about students who suddenly become avid readers after being introduced to his work, Craft said.
“These teachers have tears in their eyes and can’t make it through the story because they’re like, this is a kid who has never read and now he’s giving me reading homework,” Craft said. “We end up in one of these Dr. Phil moments, crying and hugging each other.”
Nonetheless, Craft’s coming of age novel about Jordan Banks, a Black student growing up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood who transfers to a predominately white private school, has been the subject of attempted book bans after school districts received complaints that it contains elements of critical race theory.
The first complaint surfaced in Katy, Texas in 2021. The book was pulled from library shelves after a parent complained it contained harmful content. A committee found no inappropriate content and reinstated “New Kid” after a 10-day review.
“There is no critical race theory [in my book],” Craft insists. “When I first heard that I was promoting critical race theory, I had to Google that because I had never heard the term before.”
Critical race theory is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. It emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.
Critics say they fear it will be used to teach young, impressionable students that America and white people are inherently and irredeemably racist. They often share stories about young white children who, after learning hard truths about American racism, return from school stung by the revelation that, historically, the nation has been imperfect in its treatment of Black people and other people of color.
Craft is a keynote speaker for the “Color of Education Summit” being held at Raleigh’s McKimmon Center on Saturday. Lisa D. Delpit, a nationally and internationally known speaker and writer whose work focuses on the education of children of color and teachers of color, is also a keynote speaker.
Craft’s visit to Raleigh comes on the heels of “Banned Books Week,” which shines a light on current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. The American Library Association (ALA) has reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year. Most of the challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
ALA documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number since it began compiling censorship data more than 20 years ago. Censors targeted a record 2,571 unique titles in those demands.
In North Carolina, the ALA found 32 attempts to restrict access to books in 2022 that targeted 167 titles. The most challenged title was John Green’s “Looking for Alaska.” Critics complain the coming-of-age novel contains sexually explicit encounters and LGBTQIA+ content.
“This is a dangerous time for readers and the public servants who provide access to reading materials,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, ALA’s director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom,” said in a statement to kick off Banned Books Week. “Readers, particularly students, are losing access to critical information, and librarians and teachers are under attack for doing their jobs.”
Craft was “stunned” to learn “New Kid,” which is loosely based on the experiences of Craft and his two sons, was under attack in Texas. His books contain no cursing or sex, which are often triggers for book challenges.
“A parent definitely has the right to control what they want their kid to read, but that does not give them the right to control what everyone else’s child reads,” Craft said. “It’s like, if I raised my kid to be a vegetarian, that doesn’t mean you should be able to come and slap a hamburger out of his hand.”
Craft noted that much of the conflict in “New Kid” is between Black children. Black students who attend predominately white schools like the protagonist in “New Kid” often are uncomfortable at those schools as well as in their Black neighborhoods. They are accused of talking and acting “white” by Black friends and never fully accepted by white students at school.
“I really wanted to show what a kid like me has to deal with, in addition to school — it was not just algebra and geometry — it was leaving my predominately Black neighborhood every day, going to a predominately white school,” Craft said.
One parent did express concern about Craft’s use of “Oreo” in a book as a descriptor for a Black character. It’s pejoratively used by Blacks to describe a person who they see as Black on the outside but white on the inside, like an Oreo cookie.
“She didn’t want her kids to know about that term,” Craft said. “It’s better that he learns about it from me as opposed to waiting until he gets called that and have no idea what it means.”
Books such as “New Kid,” Kwame Alexander’s “The Crossover and Eric Velasquez’ “Octopus Stew” can help heal America’s lingering racial wounds, Craft believes, by exposing children to people who are different from themselves.
“Those kids don’t grow up to hate us,” Craft said. “They don’t grow up to shoot up a Black church because they have been taught all of their life that we’re the enemy.”
Children must learn about America’s racist past for healing to take place, Craft said. If children such as Ruby Bridges and other Black students who stared racism down without blinking to integrate America’s public schools, then white children should be able to learn about their bravery in social studies classes without feeling any discomfort.
“Generally speaking, kids don’t look at it from a Black and white perspective,” Craft said. “Kids look at it as right or wrong, heroes or villains. So, if your kid identifies with one of the villains in a book, you might have dropped the ball as a parent.”
Craft finds the news from teachers that his work encourages students to read particularly gratifying. As a budding artist growing up in Harlem, Craft hated to read anything except Marvel Comics. The comic books were not popular among teachers, however.
“They hated us reading comics because they thought they would rot our little brains,” he said. “They thought they were saving us by taking comics away from us, and I guess in their minds, they thought that if they took away Spider Man that we would gravitate to Shakespeare, and that didn’t happen.”