In “New Kid,” Jerry Craft introduces Jordan Banks, a wanna-be artist and seventh grader who is starting at a new school, a fancy private school. It’s called Riverdale Academy Day School (RAD) and it’s exclusive, prestigious, and filled with mostly rich white kids, all of which Jordan is not. Each new student gets a “guide,” and Jordan is lucky — his guide is Liam, a kid who, while rich and white, really needs a friend.
The new school is a huge adjustment for Jordan, but he has Liam and a friend he feels comfortable with, Drew, with whom he can share his stories of misunderstandings and intolerance. There is one fabulous scene when Jordan is talking to one of the teachers of color in the school. Jordan says that the teachers keep calling him and Drew by the wrong names (Deandre), and the teacher says not to read anything into it. At that point, another teacher goes by and wishes “Coach Rick” good luck with his team. Jordan asks the teacher what he coaches. He responds with a wry look on his face that he is not a coach, and that he’s been at the school “for fourteen years!!!”
Then there is the actual coach who assumes that Jordan can run fast, “I mean, because you look athletic! Not because…you know… We’re all created equal, Jordan. I REALLY believe that.” Some of the situations have to be seen and read to be appreciated. Craft uses the clothes that Jordan and the others wear to highlight the social differences. The private school kids love pink preppy clothes while Jordan and his neighborhood friends wear tee shirts and athletic shorts or pants. At one point, Jordan’s playing basketball with his friends, and one of his friends says the other team is playing “terrible.” Jordan corrects him saying, “Actually, you’re playing terribly.” Then he has to explain he’s talking about the fact that terribly is an adverb, and that he’s not critiquing the other team. But then he says, “It’s an adverb so it modifies the – verb.” And the panel with the word “verb” features Jordan, leaning on a golf club, dressed to play golf, highlighting that sometimes he feels removed from his friends. But the best is the very end, when his friends give him some of his own back.
Kids will get frustrated when teachers treat students differently and at times, unfairly. What’s okay for the white, rich bully to do and say may not be okay for a scholarship student of color to do. In fact, Andy, the biggest bully, keeps ribbing a Hispanic student about tacos and Mexican food, asking if his mother makes it better. The reader comes to find out that the student isn’t from Mexico, but that’s the problem at RAD. Assumptions are made based on color, and it doesn’t always go one way. While visiting the school book fair, a worker gives Maury, a kid of color, a book “about the mean streets of uptown! A gritty tale of survival!” She tells him he’s really going to identify with the protagonist who suffered growing up in poverty without a father. Readers will chuckle at Maury’s response, “Ummm…thanks, Miss Brickner. But my dad is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” Assumptions.
And to explain the term “irony,” any teacher just needs to have her students read pages 146 and 147, where Liam invites Jordan to his home and tells him not to judge him. Jordan and his father discuss what that means — is Jordan really poor? But his dad counsels Jordan to not treat Liam any differently no matter what they find. And when they find a mansion larger than they could have imagined, Jordan does just that. He doesn’t treat Liam any differently.
The story also explores the concept of being rich. While Jordan’s family might live in a working neighborhood, Jordan’s parents are always home for him, and they support him. He is rich in family. Liam’s father works constantly, and Liam complains that he never sees his dad. Ever. Jordan’s mother works at a large corporation and tells Jordan he needs to get used to being the different one, just as she is one of less than 50 blacks working in a company of thousands. On the other hand, Jordan’s dad is a coach, and he doesn’t want Jordan to lose touch with his roots. Jordan feels torn between the two worlds until his grandfather comes for a visit and talks some sense into him. And the scene with his grandfather? That scene alone showcases Craft’s brilliance and facility with text and graphics, making the scene twist as readers discover that what they think isn’t really what is happening.
It’s a wonderful book that is humorous, touching, and above all — eye opening. It’s about feeling isolated, and about the importance of friends and family. It’s about how inside, we are all the same, with the same insecurities, no matter how much money we have or how little. And that being rich in family is much more important that being rich in material possessions — all lovely themes which would lead to wonderful class discussions. This is a great choice for a class read, read aloud, or a book club.
Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by Harper, the publisher, for review purposes.