Graphic novels provide a uniquely intimate reading experience. Through words and images, readers are invited into homes and schools; they are free to peek into corners and to quietly observe the worlds of the characters we meet. NEW KID (HarperCollins, 256 pp., $12.99; ages 8 to 12), the cartoonist Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, is a gift to readers who love the genre.
Craft invites us into the world of Jordan Banks, one of the few African-American students at a fancy private school. As a realistic graphic novel starring a kid of color, “New Kid” is a desperately needed addition to middle-grade library collections everywhere. This funny, heartwarming and sometimes cringe-inducing take on middle school is sure to resonate deeply with its young audience.
Jordan is an art-loving seventh grader who, against his will, is sent by his parents to the prestigious (and mostly white) Riverdale Academy Day School. Jordan’s struggle is neatly echoed by his parents: His mother, who works at a largely white publishing firm, thinks Jordan needs to learn how to handle feeling like an outsider if he will ever succeed in corporate America. Jordan’s father, on the other hand, runs a community center in their Washington Heights neighborhood and fears his son is losing touch with his roots.
Jordan is caught somewhere in the middle, and his coming-of-age tale means navigating the path between his new, more affluent peers and his friends and loved ones in his neighborhood.
A timely, and very funny, visit from his grandfather helps Jordan see that he does not need to choose one life or another, but can embrace the aspects of both worlds that bring him happiness.
“New Kid” is a classic coming-of-age tale in many ways. Jordan dreams of being more like Batman, and he yearns for a growth spurt. He must navigate new friends, school bullies and fears of being spontaneously kissed by a girl who seems to like him. But Craft also gives us an intimate look at the particular struggles faced by Jordan as a minority kid at a mostly white school.
His daily bus ride alone is exhausting. Jordan wears his hood and his sunglasses while he’s in his own neighborhood so he appears tough and can feel safe. Once he’s in the next neighborhood over, he takes his hood down and pulls out his sketchbook.
As he approaches school, however, he must put his markers away again for fear that someone will think he is going to tag the bus. As two of his new schoolmates put it, he must appear kinda cool, yet nonthreatening.
In addition to figuring out how to find his way through Riverdale’s sprawling campus, he must also deal with garden-variety aggression as well as microaggressions from classmates and teachers alike. His homeroom teacher, Ms. Rawle, continually calls Drew, another black student, by the wrong name. When Drew and Jordan choose to spend a frigid recess indoors together, Ms. Rawle is concerned that they don’t “associate” with other students.
These aggravations build in intensity until a cafeteria altercation with the class bully threatens to get Drew suspended — but Jordan channels his superpowers and finds a voice to express his point of view about the injustices he’s faced throughout the year.
While he may not yet be in full Batman mode (after standing up to his teacher, he runs to throw up in the boys’ room), he is one step closer to Bruce Wayne: comfortable in the boardroom and in rough neighborhoods, and willing to stand up for the little guy.
“New Kid” is at once tender and tough, funny and heartbreaking. Hand this to the middle-grade reader in your life right away.
Lincoln Peirce, creator of the best-selling Big Nate series, hits it out of the park again with his newest book, MAX AND THE MIDKNIGHTS (Crown, 277 pp., $13.99; ages 8 to 12). This rollicking, irreverent tale of knights, troubadours and magicians proves Peirce is a middle-schooler at heart. Told in a hybrid comics and novel form, with a fast-moving plot and bad puns aplenty, “Max and the Midknights” will keep even the most reluctant of readers engaged to the end.
Max is an apprentice to Sir Budrick, who happens to be the least talented troubadour of the 14th century. Max, however, has no interest in the life of a traveling entertainer and dreams of becoming a valiant knight instead.
When Sir Budrick (who is also Max’s uncle) is kidnapped by the evil King Gastley of Byjovia, Max teams up with a ragtag bunch of kids to save him.
The plot is filled with twists, the most delightful of which is revealed fairly early on. Max, as it turns out, is a girl, not a boy, as readers may assume. (I recommend you don’t tell kids ahead of time!) This revelation adds a new layer to her dreams of knighthood, and feels like a deliciously subversive jab at the tired notion of “girl books” versus “boy books.”
The story moves at a fast clip, and Max, with the help of the magician Mumblin, embarks on a quest with her friends and her uncle (who is now a goose — it’s a long story) to restore the rightful King Conrad to the throne of Byjovia.
Along the way they encounter zombie warriors, exiled knights, fire-breathing dragons and one truly evil sorceress. Through acts of bravery and with a little help from her friends, Max claims her rightful title of Knight of the Realm.
“Max and the Midknights” is a vastly entertaining mix of action, adventure and humor. The lighthearted tale also touches on deeper topics of gender nonconformity, as characters question why girls can’t be knights or magicians, or why boys can’t write books or tell stories. At its heart, however, it is pure fun.