What a class act the new Biden-Harris administration is! President Biden and his team have brought purpose and hope these past weeks–including efforts that suggest how a return to U.S. classrooms will someday be safe for all. With that hope, today seems a good time to catch up with a great, eagerly awaited middle-grade novel centered on school life. Aptly, author/illustrator Jerry Craft has titled this companion volume to his award-winning graphic novel New Kid (2019, reviewed by me here) Class Act (2020).
One need not have read New Kid, which focused on the seventh grade experience of Black 12 year-old Jordan, to appreciate Class Act. Yet having that familiarity will enhance enjoyment of this new volume, which follows Jordan into eighth grade at the prestigious, mostly-white private school, Riverdale Academy, that he attends just outside New York City. Class Act looks at and contrasts the experiences of comparatively light-skinned Jordan with those of his friends, darker-skinned Drew and Caucasian Liam. By deploying three central characters, Craft nimbly shows not only how skin tone affects racial interactions and prejudices but how economic class is a factor in personal and institutional expectations.
Jordan comes from a comfortable and caring two-parent, middle-class family, while Drew is poorer, being raised by a loving grandmother who works long hours to support their two-person household. Liam’s family is wealthy, and he definitely does not need the financial aid Riverdale provides the other two boys. How teachers and students treat Jordan and Drew—based on cultural stereotypes about Blacks–is at times both painful and painfully funny. One teacher pushes overwritten books about Black gang life at them, falsely assuming their personal experience with such dramatized situations, while other teachers either overemphasize or fail to recognize the boys’ need for financial aid. A secondary minority character, whose father is the CEO of a successful business, has his wealthy background equally misunderstood. Realistic, sympathetic girl characters in this book include accomplished yet lovelorn Ashley, who bakes sweet potato pies to attract Drew, and Alexandra, who uses puppetry to mask what she at first perceives as her weaknesses.
Craft is never didactic, using insight and humor to communicate all these events–particularly the situations he himself and his now adult sons experienced at private schools. Compounding these problems is the learning curve any tween or teen has to master. As Craft has Drew plaintively remark to Jordan at one point, ” Getting As . . . is so much easier than all the personal stuff. . . . I wish friendship came with a textbook.” It is only when Liam visits both Drew and Jordan’s homes, after they have visited his home and met his relatively unhappy family, that the boys solidify their relationships outside as well as inside school. It is a hoot how much they all appreciate the tasty meals offered by Drew’s and Jordan’s families, compared to the thin-crust, designer pizza the boys cannot escape at Liam’s fancy home!
Craft also uses humorous visual elements to reinforce his plot and themes. Confident, bossy seniors loom as literal giants over the sophomore students, while reluctant, sleepy students beginning the first day of school after summer vacation and other breaks—called “zombies” by Craft’s main characters–are literally depicted as zombies, with staring eyes, vacant expressions, and jerky body language. Class Act continues its creator’s enjoyable tradition of using punning titles for each chapter. While New Kid plays upon movie and TV show names, this companion volume plays upon kid lit book titles. Jerry Craft even lampoons himself, with one chapter’s double pun, titled “Mew Kid” and supposedly written and illustrated by “Furry Craft.” Of course, a cat is the main illustration there.
This primarily full-color book also continues New School’s insertion of short, black-and-white comics supposedly drawn by artistic Jordan. This character’s words and pictures in the comics sarcastically point out the racism he feels and sees at tony Riverdale Academy. A visit from the Academy’s new sister school—a public school from an all-Black neighborhood–provides several chapters of further differences and misunderstandings between private Riverdale and the poorly-funded public school. In our real life COVID times, such differences frequently determine how and when it is safe for students to return to classrooms rather than learning online. Fictional Riverdale has ample space and, I suspect, state of the art air circulation systems, unlike its Bronx sister school, which even lacks books for many classes. Riverdale would probably be among those private schools which this past year only briefly shut down classroom instruction. Class Act‘s other visual storytelling elements include the effective use of rare, dramatically noticeable double page spreads (including chapter headings) and some pages in which the omission or changed size of panels appropriately heightens reader attention.
How much will your young readers enjoy Class Act? This trailer for the book will pique and confirm their interest. Jerry Craft’s interesting responses to frequently-asked questions about his books and writing are also available here at his website, while this interview with him details how real-life experiences led to his depiction of Riverdale Academy, with all its flaws as well as successes. One need not—and should not—relegate reading of wise and funny Class Act to February’s serendipitous celebration of U.S. Black History month.