In a significant departure from his 17 years of picture book and middle grade projects, including Punk Farm, the Lunch Lady graphic novel series, and the Platypus Police Squad chapter book series, author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s next book is solidly a young adult offering—and a deeply personal story. Krosoczka’s graphic memoir, Hey, Kiddo (Graphix, Oct.), recounts his childhood and adolescence in Worcester, Mass., where he was raised by his colorful grandparents while his mother battled a heroin addiction (his father’s identity was a mystery to him).
Krosoczka’s first book, Good Night, Monkey Boy, was published in 2001 by Random House, when he was 23 years old. It was around this time, while he was still exclusively writing picture books, that he started thinking about sharing his own story.
“Every time I sat down to write it, I hesitated, because I feared what people would think about what I was writing,” Krosoczka says. “I realized that I wasn’t emotionally ready; if you’re going to truly write a memoir, you can’t cherry-pick memories and events to pacify those in your life. Everything was still very black-and-white to me then: there were heroes and villains of my life story. When you get older and become a parent, your perspective shifts; you start thinking about the people who came before you and what made them the way they are. Because time passed, I was able to write my mother’s character in a much more nuanced and sympathetic way.”
Editor and writer David Levithan helped provide the catalyst for Krosoczka to finally put his story on paper. In 2006, Levithan asked Krosoczka to write a piece for a teen anthology. The anthology never panned out, but Levithan was taken by Krosoczka’s young adult voice and strongly encouraged him to explore writing for an older audience. “He grew so frustrated with me as a friend that, every time he saw me, if I hadn’t started writing my young adult novel, I’d have to pay him $5,” Krosoczka says. “Then the next time, if the answer was still no, I would have to pay him double that, and double that, and double that. So, I paid him $5, then $10, and then $20. When my wife and I saw him at a book festival in Decatur, Ga., I had to go to the ATM to withdraw two 20s. David was trying to get me to write young adult with no expectations, so it’s true serendipity that he ended up the editor. Graphix is a trailblazer in the world of graphic novels for young readers. I can’t imagine a better home for Hey, Kiddo.”
Krosoczka and Levithan met in 2003 while both were on book tours and kept in touch. Entering a professional relationship with a friend can be complicated, but Krosoczka says that Levithan is good at balancing the two roles. “I quickly realized that the only person who could ever get this book out of me was someone who knew me really well and was also a brilliant editor.”
Krosoczka’s mother died in March 2017, while he was writing the script for his memoir. He says Levithan was empathetic about the necessity and difficulty of including his mother in the story: “David recognized that scenes with my mother were missing. Because he knows me, he said, ‘I think you’re avoiding it. I think you’re avoiding writing about her, but she’s a big part of your story. Whether you like it or not, you need to confront that.’ I often joke that our editorial meetings were like that scene in Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon, ‘It’s not your fault,’ and Damon breaks out in tears.”
From the start, Krosoczka says it was clear to him that his memoir would be for teens rather than a middle grade or adult audience. “It’s certainly a book adults can read, and I hope they do,” he says. “But the narrator is 17 and in that moment when he’s about to launch into the world. It just clearly needed to be YA.”
Deciding how to take events that really happened and shape them into a narrative proved a challenge, Krosoczka says. “Had this been a fictional graphic novel, I don’t think there would have been any difference in the process. Whether your character is pining after a crush or wielding fish stick nunchuks, you still have to worry about their motivations and what makes the antagonists the way they are.”
Krosoczka notes that he faced the added challenge of deciding which memories and moments to include. “David would say, ‘This is a story about family, so you have to remind yourself that if this scene is not about family, it doesn’t belong in the book.’ Some elements or moments don’t belong because they aren’t a part of the through line.”
For example, a scene in which Jarrett creates a controversial editorial cartoon for the school newspaper criticizing the headmaster’s push for nighttime pep rallies was cut. “This is not a book about kids fighting for their right to have a daytime pep rally,” Krosoczka says. “Some moments I just tucked away to use for a piece of fiction later.”
Writing a memoir was a new experience for Krosoczka, but he says that sketching was the most difficult aspect of Hey, Kiddo: “I was face-to-face with people and moments again, transformed from being in my beautiful studio to that little kitchen in Worcester—being that scared kid who didn’t know what was happening.” Creating the finished artwork wasn’t as emotionally difficult, but it did involve drawing 320 pages of comics—a more physically demanding task. “It’s standard practice for a graphic novelist to hire someone to color in the work, but I didn’t want anyone else’s hands on this but mine.”
To bring his memories to life, Krosoczka says he did more research than he’s done for any previous books. He digitized 18 hours of old VHS tapes, went through family photo albums, and drove around Worcester photographing spaces he knew would be in the book. Several of those places no longer exist, like the school he grew up attending, so he worked with the Worcester Historical Museum to source archival photographs. The Worcester Art Museum uncovered the actual brochures that Krosoczka would have looked at when choosing art classes. For sense memory, he even purchased the aftershave and perfume his grandparents once wore.
This research made its way into the finished book, too; every chapter opens with photographed artifacts: a coaster from the bar where Krosoczka’s parents met, old videos made with friends, little trinkets that hint at the story the next chapter tells. Letters from his mother are also included because he wanted to give his mother a voice and “let her tell her side of the story.”
Krosoczka says the feedback so far for Hey, Kiddo has been “incredibly rewarding and uplifting.” The book has even inspired what is a “strange new phenomenon” for the author: teen readers. Booksellers and librarians have taken to sending pictures of themselves to him via social media, their faces tearstained after reading.
“People are having such a strong emotional reaction to this,” Krosoczka says. “I think that, because I’m sharing my story visually, they feel the need to share their reaction visually, too.” He confides that he feels a certain level of relief that people are accepting this book, because it’s so different from his previous work.
Though this is Krosoczka’s first foray into YA, he’s been visiting high schools and middle schools since his TED Talk in 2012. Like Hey, Kiddo, the talk, which has more than 900,000 views on the TED website, delves into the formative experiences and people (including family, educators, and authors) that helped shape Krosoczka into an artist. “This is just going to be another track of my career,” he says. “Sometimes I’m talking to kindergarteners about Punk Farm or fifth graders about Platypus Police Squad. I switch to the age level to meet students where they are; speaking to a young adult audience about Hey, Kiddo will be no different.”
Still, Krosoczka notes that things will be interesting over the next few months because Jedi Academy: The Principal Strikes Back publishes on July 31, so he’ll be doing several events for younger readers up and down the Northeast coast, speaking to a very different audience than the one intended for Hey, Kiddo.
Krosoczka says he’s aware that readers have been growing with his books, as his writing has branched into increasingly mature content. “My favorite thing about all of this is that babies who read Good Night, Monkey Boy in 2001 were early elementary and preschool age when Punk Farm was published, and then they were around third grade when Lunch Lady was published. Now all those kids are in their middle to late teens. It’s so cool. A lot of those families I still see at events.”
Krosoczka’s mission to entertain and inspire is a constant, he says, but his hopes for readers of Hey, Kiddo are perhaps slightly more personal: “Being a kid is tough regardless of your situation because you’re not in charge of much of your reality. I hope that if readers know who I am now, they will realize that they’re not stuck where they are. Eventually they can move beyond and above whatever it is that they’re dealing with.”
Sara Grochowski is a writer and bookseller in Michigan.