interview: Jerry Craft

Today, I have an interview with Jerry Craft, author and illustrator of Mama’s Boyz : In Living Color! (Mamas Boyz Inc); The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention (co-authored with Jaylen Craft and Aren Craft; published by Mama’s Boyz Inc.) and numerous other books. His newest book, New Kid (HarperCollins) will release on 5 February. I think I’m one of the few reviewers who hasn’t had the chance to read the book, but it’s getting so much good buzz that i wanted to let everyone have a chance to get to know Jerry.

Hi Jerry! I’m pretty sure you’re the first illustrator/author I’ve interviewed! Thanks for the opportunity.


Could you tell me when you first started working in the world of children’s literature? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
So that’s an interesting question in the sense that when I published my first book in 1997, Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie, I didn’t really intend for it to jerrycrafthiresbe a kids’ book. I always loved reading comic strips when I was a kid, and also as an adult, so I wanted to do a book for people like me. Yet slowly but surely, people started buying it for their kids, because it had good messages and didn’t talk down to them. After that, I did two more Mama’s Boyz anthologies and a graphic novel. When other authors saw those, they asked me to illustrate their books as well, thus started my path as a children’s book author and illustrator. I ended up self-publishing close to three dozen books over the course of two decades.

On 31 Dec 2018 you ended the 25 year run of Mama’s Boyz comic strip. What did that feel like? Are you still thinking about those characters?
I’ll always think of Mom, Tyrell and Yusuf, because they are such a large part of what I’ve done for so long. It was bittersweet to move on because of the role they’ve played in my life. I started by self-syndicating it to weekly African-American newspapers around the country until it was picked up by King Features. I had hoped to get it to the point of, say, The Boondocks, which had several books as well as a TV cartoon but, that never happened. So, it was time to move on.

What do you remember about times when you were the new kid?
The biggest feeling I ever had of being the new kid is when I went to The Fieldston School in the Riverdale section of NYC. That’s because this was the first time that I was ever around white kids. So, I basically went from a class of 25 black kids in my prior two schools, to being one of ten black kids in a class of 110. This is where I drew a lot of reference in creating New Kid. I was VERY fortunate to find other kids who were in the same boat as me, and we stuck together like glue for until graduation and beyond. It wasn’t just the racial aspect that was tough, it was the economic disparity as well.

Jordan Banks is the main character in New Kid. What got him starting drawing cartoons?
x800.jpgThe same thing that got me drawing cartoons: It’s a great way to express yourself, especially when you’re a bit shy around other kids, which I used to be. Jordan carries around his sketch book wherever he goes.

Between convincing people of his talent and navigating how to exist in two different cultural environments, Jordan has a lot of growing up work to do. How did you manage to express that in the story? And, I’m particularly curious about how the illustrations would communicate his evolution. What will we see in your drawings?

I don’t think that many teachers or staff at predominately white institutions truly realize the complexity of being one of the few kids of color. Many just think that you’re so lucky to have an opportunity like this; that everything should be a piece of cake. But what they don’t realize is that not only can it be difficult to attend schools like these, it can also be difficult trying to maintain your friends from your neighborhood. It’s very easy for us to label anyone who goes off the beaten path as a sell-out, or trying to be white. As a result, I’ve seen many kids on this path sabotage their school career or self-destruct.

In the book, I made sure to show each aspect of Jordan’s growth, both at school and at home. In some ways he grows up more than others, but he still has a long way to go.

I have so many goals for New Kid. For one, I would love to create characters that mean as much to kids of color as Wimpy Kid, or Percy Jackson or any other books that you see kids carry around. I’d like them to think of this as a book that made them laugh, and also challenged them to think. But I would also LOVE for this to have the same effect on their teachers and their parents. There are so many micro aggressions, and some that are not so micro, that our kids face on a daily basis which can undermine the biggest reason why they’re in school in the first place, which is to learn!

How can parents and teachers support young people who are passionate about drawing?
Well, although you didn’t ask, I think the first thing I’d like to say is how to support kids of color who are in these situations. And the advice is to actually ask them how they are and listen to their answers. Don’t be so quick to always regurgitate advice such as, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. Just give it time.”

As far as young artists, the advice is the same. Do they want to do it professionally, or is it just a hobby? My parents didn’t think anyone could make a living as an artist, so they didn’t let me go to the art school of my dreams. Instead they sent me to Fieldston, which is what became the basis for New Kid.

Also, if your kids are really serious about a career in art, encourage them. I am one of the cofounders of the Annual Schomburg Black Comic Book Festival, and one of the things I LOVED was seeing parents bring their kids to meet the creators.

I think there are a lot of Black illustrators out there who create whole new possibilities for themselves in comics, graphic novels and other formats. What are some of the names I should start looking for?
M’shindo kuumba, John Jennings, Jennifer Crute, David Walker, Alex Simmons, Micheline Hess, Dawud Anyabwile, Jamar Nicholas . . .  it’s a pretty long list, and I probably just made a bunch of them mad at me for not mentioning them.

I’m only familiar with a few of those names, i appreciate you mentioning them. I’ll look for their work!

Jerry, thanks for the interview. I wish you much success with New Kid.

Publishers description of the book: Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School, where he is now one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. As he makes the daily trip from his Washington Heights apartment, Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds—and not really fitting into either. Can he learn to navigate his new school culture while keeping his neighborhood friends and staying true to himself?