Jarrett Krosoczka is an illustrator and author who is most famous for his Lunch Lady & Jedi Academy series. His most recent book, Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction, is a graphic memoir for young adults that comes out on October 9th. It was recently longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I was lucky enough to receive a galley copy when I went to the SIBA tradeshow last month. Krosoczka was unable to make it to speak at the event because of Hurricane Florence but he did record a very moving video about the book that we (booksellers) watched together. I left that lunch knowing that I was going to read the book before I even got back home.
Reader, I read it in one, very emotional, sitting.
In this book, Krosoczka tells the story of his family--starting with his grandparents, Joe & Shirley, who met and fell in love as teenagers. After his grandfather returned from WWII, during which the young Shirley had broken up with him, he came back to Worcester, MA to win back her heart. They got married shortly after and started having children. Jarrett’s mother, Leslie, was the second child in a family of five kids. The same year Leslie was born, Joe opened a factory that was fairly successful throughout his life, and spent most of his time working. Shirley, however, had experienced a personal tragedy that led her to start drinking heavily. This was the beginning of a tumultuous mother/daughter relationship between Shirl & Leslie.
When Leslie was 13, she began to act out. She started sneaking out, drinking, doing drugs, and getting into fights at school. Eventually, Leslie came home to say that she was pregnant. This did not help the volatile relationship she had with her mother but she did manage to stay clean while she was pregnant. After Jarrett was born, Joe bought Leslie a little home to make their own and they lived relatively happily there until Jarrett was a few years old. Leslie made a series of bad decisions and eventually went to jail. While there, Jarrett went to live with his grandparents and Joe set things up so that he, legally, had custody of him.
Ultimately, Jarrett was better off living with his grandparents than with Leslie. They were supportive of his art, encouraging him to make friends at school, and wanted to be involved in his life. However, they both drank heavily and fought constantly. It wasn’t the most stable upbringing, especially when you add in the infrequent visits and letters from his mother. After Leslie got out of jail, she spent time in halfway houses trying to get her life back on track. Jarrett always hoped, as a young kid, that he would be able to live with his mother again. It wasn’t even until he was in 3rd grade that he learned his mother was in jail and the knowledge haunted him. His hope to be reunited with his mother diminished as he aged until, eventually, he was a bitter, angry teenager.
During this time, he also began wondering about his father, who he’d never met and who’d never sought him out despite knowing that he had a child. As a teenager, he discovered his father’s last name and couldn’t shake the thoughts of him and what knowing his father would mean for his identity. So, when he got a letter from him one day, he was surprised but still not ready to get to know him yet.
Throughout middle and high school, Jarrett kept sketchbooks to draw in everywhere he went. He took art classes and began to get involved in the school newspaper as an illustrator for their comic section. Through art, he was able to explore the emotions he was feeling and express the pain he was feeling in a way that didn’t hurt him or anyone else. The drawings from this period of his life are quite dark and you can tell he was struggling with a lot.
There’s more to the story but I’ve gotten to the part where I feel like I’m going to give something integral away so I’ll stop my summary here. You’ll have to grab a copy to find out what happened to teenage Jarrett.
Reading this book was difficult but satisfying for me. Krosoczka writes with a openness and honesty about his troubled upbringing that I found both refreshing and reassuring. He also added a lot of special, personal touches to the book that made reading it especially moving. For example, each of the chapter title pages has the pattern of the wallpaper that was on the walls of the house he grew up in. He saved a roll of it to use in this book. He also added in actual art that he made as a child. All the artwork you see in the book that he says was drawn by him, was actually drawn by him when he was young and then superimposed into the book later. The letters from his mother are also real letters that she wrote to him. It was a very nice touch to this personal, painful memoir.
For my part, I didn’t grow up in a traditional nuclear family so seeing a representation of a loving family that maybe wasn’t quite like the families I saw in movies & tv shows was comforting. I also have experience dealing with family members struggling with addiction. Krosoczka’s memoir does an excellent job excavating the pain and anger that boil up in situations like this without feeling like he’s dramatizing for the sake of the story. Stories of addiction often have enough drama without needing any embellishment. Ultimately, the book felt real and raw and accessible in a way that I haven’t seen in a graphic memoir for a while. Comparatively though, it reminded me of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
Because this book was made for young adults (recommended ages 12-14), I feel that the topic is especially important. During a time when opioids are so widely available and so many people are addicted to them that the media calls it a crisis, there are many young adults who will find this book and be reassured by it’s honesty and it’s message.
I talk a lot about the importance of representation and there are lots of obvious ways that we can improve representation in literature. For example, it’s my priority to highlight books by marginalized authors or with marginalized characters both in my store and on our social media. However, I do think there are groups of marginalized people whose stories are often overlooked. The stories of those families fighting drug or alcohol addiction, and the children caught in the crossfire, are on that list. Often, addiction is a dark family secret. It’s not something you talk about outside of the family and certainly isn’t a story you share with the rest of the world, particularly in literature for young people. So, the importance of this work at this particular time in history is a bit elevated. We need these stories, not just for the sake of representation but also because the message we learn from Krosoczka is extremely valuable.
What is that message, then? The message is not particularly unique or surprising but it is one that I think we need to hear. Art saves. Art saves people. Art saves lives. Art saves families. Art saves angry kids from going to jail. Art saves. Art saved Jarrett from repeating the mistakes of his mother. Art saved Jarrett from the demons that plagued him. Art saved Jarrett from a life of doing something he didn’t love. Art saved Jarrett from the bitterness that threatened to eat him up as a teenager. Without art and a family who supported that art, we wouldn’t have the Jarrett Krosoczka we know and love today.
So, if you know a kid who’s struggling with their own demons or someone else’s, I highly recommend this book to them. If you know someone who is a parent and an addict, I also recommend this to them. It paints a vivid picture of the pain that a parent’s addiction caused one boy. If that message can help one person recognize the suffering they’re causing, then this book is more than worth the cost to purchase it. If the message that art saves can be imparted onto at least one young soul, then I think we’re on our way to making the world a better place.
You can pick up a copy of Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka at Foggy Pine Books on Tuesday, October 9th. You can also pre-order the ebook from us online and have it downloaded to your device that day.
Mary Ruthless: Owner & Ruthless Reader