Before it was a Newbery/Coretta Scott King winner, Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid was our book club pick (I’m not smug about this at all). Graphic novels have always been the biggest hits at my tween book clubs, so I was ready for this to be an unanimous favorite among my kids.
I was so wrong.
Here’s the short description I used for our marketing:
“Jordan wants to go to art school. But his parents send him to a fancy private school instead, where Jordan feels out of place because almost all the kids are white. Is this going to be the worst school year ever?”
Number of kids: Our regular crew of 15. I’m starting to thing that next year I’m going to cap attendance a bit lower, maybe around 12. Fifteen rambunctious 9-12 year-olds is a lot to handle after school for me.
Age range: Grades 4-6. I’m already getting some wailing and gnashing of teeth from one of our sixth graders, who is worried about aging out next year.
Cost: Because our activity (see below) didn’t require any extra supplies, this was just the cost of the paperback books (about $8.00/copy at the time) and fruit for snacks. This worked out to about $150.
The Book Discussion:
I admit: I didn’t prep for this discussion the way that I should have. In the past, we’ve done several graphic novels (El Deafo, Roller Girl, The Nameless City), and these have been the club’s favorite books. The kids have usually been able to run the discussion themselves with these books, because they’re so enthusiastic about them. Additionally, we’ve read a few books in the past that also addressed themes of race and injustice (Front Desk, Dumpling Days, Full Cicada Moon), and the students have also been able to really engage with those themes and think deeply about them.
That didn’t happen with New Kid.
I want to stop for a moment and clarify two things: 1. I still think New Kid is a great book, and I’m going to keep recommending it, and 2. There are currently no black students attending our book club (though there have been in the past).
Our first stumbling block came right at the first question, when I asked whether the tweens liked the book. I got a resounding “no” from half the group. The other half had mixed reviews, saying that they didn’t hate it, but only liked parts of it, etc. I always tell book club that it is okay if they don’t like a book – that we can talk about what we didn’t like as much as what we did, and it’s okay for us to have different opinions. But I admit to being taken aback!
When I asked them to talk about what they didn’t like about the book, several kids immediately responded that they thought the book was racist, and they didn’t like that.
Now I was totally shocked. Although we don’t currently have any black members of book club, we have in the past, and our area is very diverse – only about a third of our book club would identify as Caucasian. I expected my students to have more empathy for and connection to the book’s characters. After probing a little further, this is what I started to hear:
“They call everybody so many mean names.”
“His teacher is so rude!”
“Half the kids in that school should be in such trouble for how racist they are.”
I started to understand. “Do you think the book itself is racist?” I asked. “Or are the characters inside the book racist?” My kids had identified the racist themes in the book, and it had made them uncomfortable to see that racism. Their uncomfortable feelings made them dislike the book.
I went from feeling like book club was an absolute wreck to realizing what a teaching moment I had on my hands. I threw out my pre-made list of questions about the art style, the word “microaggressions,” and Craft’s use of humor, and worked from scratch, so that we could unpack the difference between a racist book and a story that contains racism. So that we could confront some of the uncomfortable feelings reading Jordan’s story had raised for them.
I don’t think any of my kids came away from that discussion with a higher opinion of the book, to be honest. But I do hope that our conversation cracked open the door for them to think about their discomfort with racism in a new, more open-minded way.
After our tumultuous discussion of the book, I was glad to have something goofy to end our meeting with. I showed them the video above, of Jerry Craft drawing his own character blindfolded, and then handed out a bunch of paper and colored pencils and let the kids take a crack at it (with eyes closed or open). I encountered some resistance from a few of my kids who complained that they were no good at drawing – that’s the first time this has happened at book club. Instead of drawing, these kids mostly chit-chatted and enjoyed goofing around.
I think one reality we will have to work with going forward is that as my book club kiddos age up, they are becoming more peer-focused, and therefore more interested in using book club as social time instead of as activity time. I’m trying out different types of activities that might facilitate that need for peer-to-peer time, without letting book club go completely unstructured.
What’s Up Next?
That would be Dusti Bowling’s amazing Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus! I just read the sequel last month (Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus) and ended up bawling my eyes out. We’ll see if my kiddos like it, too!