About 100 years ago, I created a comic strip called Mama’s Boyz, that was syndicated by King Features Syndicate. I remember showing samples to my new wife early on, who occasionally didn’t get the punchline. “But I’m not a cartoonist,” she’d say, trying to spare my feelings. “But my audience isn’t cartoonists,” I’d reply, “It’s regular people like you. (Believe me when I tell you that cartoonists are NOT regular people!) To me, if she didn’t get the joke, it wasn’t HER fault, it was MINE! Because, whether you are a cartoonist, illustrator or author, it’s our job to create work that our fans will understand, find appealing and most of all, enjoy.
The same thing happened in 1997 when I published my first Mama’s Boyz book. I made sure to show it to as many people as I could before it went to press. And Moms don’t count, they think everything you do is great!
By the time I started to write and illustrate children’s books, I had kids of my own. My own, in-home focus group. There were days when I couldn’t wait for them to wake up so I could read them what I had stayed up til 1 a.m. to write. When they were younger, everything that Daddy did was great. But as they got older … wow! More on them later.
In 2007, when I did my second Mama’s Boyz book, I chose five kids, including my two sons, and gave them all proofs of the book along with a Post-It pad and told them to stick notes on anything that they didn’t understand or particularly like. I listed them as my Jr Editorial staff. And they were amazing. From that day on, I’ve always used my fans as a sounding board. And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy doing school visits so much.
But the book that I have probably asked for the most feedback for, is my new middle grade novel, “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” It’s the story of five middle school bullies who get superpowers. But instead of them being able to transform into cool superheroes like Spider-Man, or Batman or Captain America, they are forced to take on the characteristics of the kids who they pick on. So one gains 100 pounds; one becomes paper thin; one is super smart, but physically uncoordinated; one gets huge metallic bucked teeth; and the last girl (who always calls kids mousey), literally shrinks down to the size of a mouse! Now they have to try to protect the school, but they’re embarrassed to go outside because they get teased based on their physical appearance. Karma!
I wanted to make sure that in addition to having this be a book about bullying, I also made sure that the characters consisted of both boys AND girls and from different nationalities. But I also didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to think that I could write about characters that I knew nothing about because I had seen them on TV. So I consulted the experts! One of the main characters is Dexter Dias, who is Puerto Rican. Once his chapters were done, I sent them along to two friends who are Puerto Rican. Even though I grew up in the Washington Heights Section of New York City which had a huge population of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, it was not the same as growing up in their household. Plus Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are NOT the same. And I was right to do so, because both of my friends, one of them being Eric Velasquez (an amazing children’s book illustrator), told me that although they liked the story, it wasn’t entirely accurate. I had completely missed some of the nuances that a lot of Latino families have in common. So it was important that I kept rewriting until I got their seals of approval.
The same was true for the character of Bobby Bonderman, a Korean boy adopted by white parents. I don’t know what it feels like to be adopted. But I know plenty of “experts” who do. Plus there was the extra part of adopting a child outside of your culture. Do you ignore it, or embrace it?
And last but not least, the book had to get past my own sons, who were 13 and 15 at the time, and no longer think that everything I do is amazing just because I buy them ice cream. (Ah, those were the days!) At some point in time, they went from, “we like your stories,” to, “Dad, can you read that last line again? – No, no kid would say that.” In fact, they began to add so many intricacies to the story, that I officially made them co-authors. After all, who knows how kids talk, and how they act, better than actual kids?! It was the best thing that I could have done. And when you add the fact that I used multiple school visits to have auditoriums full of kids help me choose the right cover image, I knew I had a winner on my hands.
As a result, the reviews that I’ve gotten so far have been amazing! One mom even emailed me to say that now she finally knows what her kids are talking about. So, the book has not just been helping kids, it’s been helping parents and teachers as well. In fact, even though I’m still just doing a small test run, it was already chosen by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center for their first ever book club!
So the moral of this story, is don’t be afraid to ask for help. AND, not that you have to take every bit of criticism to heart, but don’t just dismiss it because you don’t like to be criticized. Everyone is an expert on something, even if it’s just knowing what it’s like to be a kid.
Jerry Craft has illustrated and written more than a dozen children’s books. He recently illustrated “The Zero Degree Zombie Zone,” for Scholastic, which is due out later this month (August 2014).
To see more on “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” or to order an autographed copy, check Jerry’s website at http://jerrycraft.net/offenders.html
For some fabulous homework created by Jerry just for Kidlit Summer School, please visit the Exercise Book.