Author Jerry Craft: Most kids cheer for the heroes to succeed no matter who they are
This essay by Jerry Craft is part of a series of interviews with — and essays by — authors who are finding their books being challenged and banned in the U.S.
If you are a parent or a caregiver and your kid reads a book and identifies with the antagonist (you know, the bad guy), then you have not done your job as a parent. There, I said it. This was initially going to be my big finale. But I've decided to start here instead. And here's why: When you think of the books that have been banned over the last few years, most are by or about people of color or the LGBTQ+ community. And in many of these stories, as with my books New Kid and Class Act, the protagonists are the targets of bullying.
But what so many of today's protesting parents and politicians seem to forget is that most kids are kind and empathetic. Most kids root for the underdog. Most kids cheer for the heroes to succeed no matter who they are. It is we adults who turn them into little versions of ourselves — people who look down on anyone who isn't exactly like us. It's the adults who say that books like mine are designed to make white kids feel ashamed of themselves. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Think of many of the classic movies that we watched in our younger days, such as Avatar, Shrek, and ET. What these movies all have in common is that, for the most part, humans are the bad guys. We all cheered for the large blue aliens, a very big green troll, and a little extraterrestrial--characters who would scare us to death in real life. But there are no protests from parents who claim that these movies make their kids feel guilty to be human.
In the thousands of emails and letters I've received since I self-published my first book way back in 1997, not once have I ever heard from a kid who said they felt bad after reading one of my books. They look at the characters from New Kid such as Jordan and Drew (both African American), and Liam (white) as kids they would love to hang out with. These are characters who they dress up as for Halloween or "dress like your favorite book character day" in school. They are characters who inspire their readers to be better and kinder. Characters who even have inspired teachers and librarians to look at their interactions with their students of color in order to improve their relationships.
In fact, just today I received an email from a 13-year-old girl who identifies as being white with autism and other disabilities (her words, not mine). She took the time to write to me because she wanted to tell me that she related to the characters in New Kid because, "I know what it's like to be different at school, and the book helped me." The parents and politicians who fight to ban books like mine will never entertain the idea that our books help kids who feel like outsiders see that they are not alone. They will never see the humor, or the love, that we pour into our pages.
Instead, they invent things that never actually happen in some of the books that they work so hard to ban. They throw out terms such as Marxism even though they couldn't tell you whether it is based on the writings of Karl or Groucho. And I sincerely doubt that anyone who criticizes a middle-grade book for teaching critical race theory (CRT) even knows what this is. I know that I certainly didn't know about CRT when I was accused of teaching it through my book. But this is the same angry mob mentality that will create more authors who feel the need to write their own stories, only to eventually have their books banned.
Meanwhile, when I was a kid, I don't recall any adult ever "protecting me" from the fact that all of the characters who looked like me did nothing but suffer. Most of the Black stories were about the struggle for civil rights, or gang life, or police brutality. Or being enslaved. But I guarantee that when my next book, School Trip, comes out in April that there will be people who won't want to share the book with their students because they "won't be able to relate" to kids of color spending a week in Paris. Which is actually a lot more realistic than a kid thinking that they can be a wizard! Or a cool vampire. Or single-handedly bring down an evil regime in our inevitable dystopian society.
In New Kid, Jordan says to his teacher Miss Rawle, "So it's okay that this stuff happens to me. It's just not okay for me to talk about it." And that sums up so much of what is going on with book-banning. New Kid is the only book to have won the Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the Kirkus Prize; yet I have gotten ten times more press for having my books banned than I have for doing something that no other author has done.
So if your kids want to read a book about any type of kid other than themselves, please let them. If a kid decides that they are the ones who can't relate to a book, they will stop reading it. Trust me. Kids cheer for heroes, they do not identify with bad guys. And finally, (here's my new big finale) if your kids can root for characters who are blue, or green, they can surely root for characters who are black or brown.
Jerry Craft is the author and illustrator of New Kid, Class Act and the forthcoming School Trip. You can find him here.
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