Santa Claus may not be this season’s biggest holiday myth. A more troubling fantasy here in North America may be the myth of the perfectly happy, affluent family—one celebrating its winter holidays with big smiles in a bright, cheerful home filled with presents. The many ads and other images featuring such families can be a far cry from what some kids and teens actually experience. Today, I look at two graphic works—one a personal memoir and the other a novel—that vividly depict real-life family problems as these play out during holidays as well as ordinary days. Addiction is the main problem in both books. Readers teen and up will appreciate how the central figures in these works cope with and survive family woes and, in one case, even win a bright future.
Author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka dedicated his recent memoir Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction (2018) not only to his grandparents and mother but to “every reader who recognizes this experience.” Teens who know 41 year-old Krosoczka only as the successful author/illustrator of funny picture books, chapter books, and the humorous “Lunch Lady” series of graphic novels may be surprised to learn about his difficult childhood and adolescence. Krosoczka has mentioned this, though, in a 2012 TED talk about his becoming an artist. The insights in that talk are fleshed out in his moving memoir, already short-listed this year for a National Book Award.
Krosoczka’s mother Leslie was a heroin addict, unable to care safely for her son. From the age of three onward, Jarrett was raised in Worcester, Massachusetts by her parents, his grandfather Joe and grandmother Shirley Krosoczka. Jarrett’s Christmas memories include his bewilderment at being separated as a three year-old from his mother and his pained confusion after a holiday visit with her the following year. Throughout this memoir, which follows Jarrett through high school graduation at age seventeen, holidays figure prominently: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Mother’s Day are fraught with meaning and tension. Traditional Mother’s Day cards suit neither the love and disappointment of his relationship with mother Leslie nor the complicated devotion grandmother Shirley provides. It is sometimes hard for bitter-tongued Shirley to see beyond her own needs and beliefs, as when she dismisses the portrait teen-aged Jarrett has labored over for his grandparents’ 45th wedding anniversary gift. Her saying “It doesn’t look anything like us. You’re not that good” is terribly hurtful to him.
Expressive facial features and body language communicate this pain effectively here and throughout the book. The author/illustrator understands much about his grandparents that is unstated in words but revealed in images. During Jarrett’s account of his grandparents’ “backstory,” Shirley’s changing expression as she struggles as a young mother with a growing family of five children is tellingly spotlighted by its placement on a double spread page with a black background. Such double spreads highlight other emotionally significant moments in this eight-chapter, 300-page work. We also see how some parental patterns have unintentional influences. Shirley and Joe themselves drink heavily, leading to household arguments. On a lighter note, Joe’s affectionate hello to Jarrett, “Hey, Kiddo,” is echoed by Leslie in some of the letters she writes to her son when she is (unbeknown to him) in prison. Jarrett Krosoczka as author does a great job capturing and reproducing the rhythms of everyday, idiosyncratic, and sometimes profane speech.
Timestamps throughout the memoir are effectively made through bits of contemporaneous songs and through actual memorabilia (family photographs, wedding and graduation announcements, newspaper clippings) that introduce each chapter. One memento is a handmade, obviously cherished Christmas tree ornament. Readers never lose track of where we are in this memoir, while Krosoczka catches us up on subsequent events in an affecting final “Author’s Note.” The following “Note on the Art” is where we learn the origin of the book’s limited color scheme—a tribute to his grandfather Joe. Krosoczka at age 41 concludes his heartfelt memoir with images supporting his recognition that Joe and Shirley were “two incredible parents right there before me the entire time. They just happened to be a generation removed.” I myself find it moving that this echoes the dedication of his first published book, Goodnight, Monkey Boy (2001). Even back then, the 23 year old author/illustrator acknowledged “Grandma and Grandpa, the best parents a kid could ask for.”
David Small, a Caldecott Award-winning children’s book illustrator, won further acclaim and awards in 2010 for his own painful graphic memoir, Stitches (2009), detailing his youth and dysfunctional family life in 1950s America. Small’s new graphic novel, though, titled Home After Dark (2018), is a fictional work set in the same time and milieu, but based on experiences told to the author/illustrator by a friend. This harshly poetic book is a breath-taking achievement!
The story of its central figure, thirteen and later fourteen year-old Russell, is told primarily through pen and grey wash images, with sparse narrative. Multiple page sequences abound with no words at all. Russell is abandoned by his mother and later by his alcoholic father, set adrift in a small California town. This community is rife with school yard bullies, racist attitudes towards Asian immigrants, homophobia, and sexual stereotypes that make “girl” a slur when spoken to or about any teen age boy. Russell cannot even escape in sleep, as his fears and experiences transmogrify into frightening dreams. One dream transforms his limited understanding of the town business men’s Lions Club into a circus where Russell finds himself thrown into an actual lion’s cage. In a devastating image, Small draws the terrified teen crouched inside the lion’s wide-open jaws.
Spoiler alert and warning: another teen takes his own life here. And Russell then runs away, living dangerously on his own in an attempt to apologize for his failure to stand up for that boy. All this plays out against a Christmas prologue, seen in the 10 minute book trailer read by Small himself, which serves to highlight how far Russell’s existence is from any holiday cheer or televised dreams.
Yet there is also some hope here. Russell, who near the book’s conclusion says “I am nobody’s son,” is taken in by the Chinese immigrant family whose trust he has already betrayed once. The final page and image is of Mrs. Wah, calling Russell into their house, with the welcoming words that “Supper is ready.” For a teen who has despaired of life, summing up his biggest, seemingly insurmountable problem as his wish “to live without hurting anyone,” a second chance in that circumscribed, pre-Internet world now seems possible. Teen readers might want or need to talk about this book with others, for background insight into the era as well as discussion of the novel’s events and ideas. Home After Dark is well worth that commitment of time and energy for readers ready to explore the many issues, including alcoholism, it addresses.
I plan now to decompress from Home After Dark by reading as many of the ten Lunch Lady graphic novels as are available in my local library! I have only personally read her adventures in a series of compilation volumes, the Comics Squad books, which Jarrett Krosocska contributed to as well as co-edited. (I reviewed one a few years ago here.) After that, I think I will be ready to reread my own copy of David Small’s searing memoir, Stitches. I will also remember to count each and every win as any woes arise. Fine graphic literature is definitely in my win column, along with family and friends, for whom I feel fortunate and remain grateful.
Wishing you good reading and holidays free of stress and frenzy. . . .