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New Kid Charting New Territory: A Close Look at the Newbery Award Winner with Teaching Suggestions

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Photo: Meryl Jaffe and Jerry Craft, NCTE 2019 taken by Talia Hurwich


I am so excited to post this: Congratulations to Jerry Craft, HarperCollins and New Kid for winning the 2020 John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature this year.

For one thing, this is THE FIRST time a graphic novel has won the award (although others have been nominated in the past). And while it faced stiff competition, the Newbery Award couldn't be more deserved.

The Newbery, however, is far from the only award this gem has received:

Winner, 2020 Newbery Medal

Winner, 2020 Coretta Scott King Book

New York Times Bestseller

Winner, 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers' Literature

One of Publisher Weekly's Best Middle Grade Books of 2019

Nominee, 2019 Harvey Award for Best Children's Book

Honor Book, 2020 Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children

And more.

Here is a closer look at this literary and visual gem followed by some teaching suggestions.

New Kid: Overview

New Kid is outstanding for many reasons. First, this is one of the first graphic novels - where the main character is simply an everyday black kid (no super powers or blustery past or side-kick) who tackles everyday problems, particularly that of fitting in. Second, the plot, storytelling and the characters are wonderfully real and flawed and honest. Third, even while dealing honestly with feelings, conflicts, and decision making, there's a wonderful hopefulness and humor. Even while we learn how challenging and uncomfortable it is for the very few kids of color attending Riverdale Academy Day School, readers discover that just about every kid in this book is wrestling with trying to fit in when he or she feels so different. We also discover that we all make assumptions and label things (from books to people) based on their covers - how they look. Fourth, the storytelling is chock-full of gems, be they cultural references to classic movies and novels, or references to metaphors, similes and word play, or simply the creative visual-verbal storytelling. It's SO MUCH FUN to read!

New Kid: A Close Look

New Kid is about 12-year old Jordan Banks - a kid from Washington Heights, New York whose Mom pushes for him to go to a prestigious, swanky private school in Riverdale (where he is one of just a few students of color) even though he dreams of going to art school.

While most of the kids are relatively nice, albeit privileged (their winter vacations alone are impressive), Jordan and his friend Drew (another black student) seem to be the only two who notice some glaring inequalities. For one thing, teachers mix up the black kids' names (and even one of the black teachers whom they call "Coach" even though he's been there for fourteen years and is the math teacher). They also notice that they get blamed for indiscretions when it is one of the white kids who typically instigates them. When Jordan asks Drew how he deals with all this he tells Jordan what his grandmother tells him: "That in order to become successful one day, I need to get used to being a fly in the buttermilk." [This is one of many wonderful metaphors Craft shares with us.] After some time, however, Jordan and all his friends soon learn that they all make assumptions about each other that aren't necessarily true. They learn to be more open with each other, to a large extent thanks to Jordan who finally leaps into action because it all just becomes 'too much,' He finally speaks up and confronts all that is wrong with Riverdale Academy Day School (its mascot is "Rad Tad" the tadpole) and the others follow.

TEACHING SUGGESTIONS While this space and column doesn't lend itself to lesson plans, here a few ways to use New Kid in your classrooms.

Close reading of characters and storytelling. Each of the characters opens up and grow as they interact with each other. Craft's use of language and image lends this work to effective close reading.

Have students chart characters' growth.

Have students analyze the trails faced by these characters and how they resolve them and grow.

Have students search for and discuss racial slurs and labeling exhibited by both students and teachers.

Close reading of visual and verbal storytelling. This book is chock-full of metaphors, similes, and wonderful word play. Have students search and explore. Here are a few examples:

Search and compare visual versus verbal metaphors.

Each chapter has a title referencing a classic book and/or movie. Have students explore the references. [Some of my favorites: The Road to Riverdale - There and Back; Upper, Upper West Side Story; The Chinese Food Connection; Straight Outta South Uptown; The Socky Horror Picture Show; Field of Screams; The Farce Awakens; and many more.]

As Jordan Banks longs to be in an art school, he keeps his sketchbook with him and draws when he can - often during his commute on public transportation. This is like a cartoon visual/verbal journal where he gives us insights such as: "My Dad's Tips for Being a Man: Shaking Hands; The Dude Pyramid: A Guide to Cafeteria Hierarchy; Jordan's Tips for Taking the Bus; Jordan's Guide to all Sports; Judging Kids by the Covers of their Books:" and more. You may want students to create their own visual/verbal journals.

Critical Thinking: There are wonderful insights sprinkled throughout this book. Have students search for and discuss them. Here are just two examples that merit deeper thought and discussion:

Jordan's Mom and Dad argue about sending Jordan to a predominantly white, privileged private school. Mom feels that learning now to navigate in a predominantly white world will help him learn how to play the game later as an adult in corporate America. Dad argues that, "... Not everyone can play that game... Nor should they."

Liam, Jordan's "Guide" at school invites Jordan over to his house one day and asks, "And... umm... When you come over try not to, you know, judge, okay?" And later Liam shares, "I just don't think there's anyone who's like me at this school. I always feel so... DIFFERENT."

Visual Literacy. This is a great book to teach and explore visual literacy. I don't have images to share with you from the book but SO MUCH of the character insights and emotions are told through image that it merits a much closer look. Furthermore, as I've mentioned, Mr. Craft does a superb job of using visual and well as verbal metaphor to make this story more engaging and the characters more real and empathetic. This too is worth a close look.

One final word: This book can be used for MANY of the lessons in our book Worth A Thousand Words: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Visual and Verbal Literacy. It can be use for all the lesson in Chapters 3 and 4 when teaching students how to critically read graphic novels; for lessons in Chapter 5 on motivating students to slow down, to collaborate, and to comfortably take risks; and for lessons in Chapter 6 (critical reading) and Chapter 7 (motivating students to write).

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