Jarrett J. Krosoczka is a kids' book writer and he loves to make his readers laugh, in silly picture books like Naptastrophe and Punk Farm and his action-packed Lunch Lady graphic novel series featuring a crime-fighting, apron-wearing lunch lady who's always ready to do battle to protect her students.
But his new book — his 38th in 17 years — is different. Longlisted for National Book Award, Hey Kiddo is a graphic memoir that tells the story of Krosoczka's unconventional childhood. While there are certainly some funny moments, there are also many that are decidedly grown-up.
His mom is a heroin user who ends up incarcerated and gives up custody of her son to his grandparents, Joe and Shirl — who drink, smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, yell at each other and adore him.
The words and art work of Hey, Kiddo detail the harrowing and heartfelt days he endured.
"It's a complicated emotion to be a kid where I definitely always felt that my mother loved me, but I also felt total abandonment," Krosoczka says. "Those are complicated emotions and Hey, Kiddo is a graphic memoir, so it's illustrated, so I'm able to get into those thoughts and feelings with the visuals in a way that I don't think I would be able to with prose."
Krosoczka spoke with NPR about the book, his relationship with his grandparents and mother, and how drawing became an outlet for him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On how he came to live with his grandparents
[My mom] was in her mid-20s when she had me, and my grandfather got her a house to raise me in. But it was pretty clear early on that she wasn't able to give me the adequate care that a baby would need. So my grandparents' youngest two children — their names are Lynn and Holly, and they were in their early teens when I was born — and Lynn and Holly would babysit me when I was about 2 years old. They'd come home in tears, and they'd say "Mom, Dad, we gotta get that kid out of that house."
So my mother, shortly after I was born, started using again, and with using came other criminal activity to support the habit. And so my grandfather started lining up the legal paperwork to gain custody of me because he didn't want me to slip and to become a ward of the state.
On what it was like to be raised by grandparents
They were planners, right? So they wanted to make sure their estates were in order should something tragic happen. I was an 8-year-old kid, and they would talk very openly about their will, and what would happen if they were to go soon.
You know, my grandmother, anytime you took a photo with her — she would say "If that comes out good, put it in the paper." Which meant, use that for her obituary photo — make sure you choose a very flattering photo to put in the newspaper when she dies.
And yes, they picked out their headstone. We were just very casually driving home from Coney Island Hot Dogs in Worcester, and they said "oh, let's just stop by — the stone is in, let's stop by the cemetery," and there it was: my grandparents — who are my parents — their first names and their birth years, but no death dates.
On how he started drawing
It becomes an escape — it becomes the one world I can control, right? It bides time, it's therapeutic, it gets my mind off things — my mind is there on the page.
Part of my research into this book is I saved every sketchbook I had throughout my teens years — and looking through them, all I could think about "that kid was angry."
My grandparents never once considered putting me in therapy, and part of that was their generation — they came of age in the Great Depression and you just didn't talk about things. I had friends I could speak to, I certainly had some adults in my life I could speak to, family members and teachers at school who always very patiently offered a listening ear to me.
But these sketchbooks — to be able to work through some of this sort of darkness I had in my head — gave me an outlet.
On why he dedicated the book to young readers
There are a lot of kids going through that now. And of course when I was a kid, I thought I was the only one in America being raised by my grandparents — I didn't think any of my peers at my elementary school or grad school had these sorts of problems. And come to find out later, they certainly did.
I hope with that dedication to young readers who are experiencing a similar track in life, might feel less alone by that, to know that I'm acknowledging that this might be an experience that they're also having.
On the relationship with his birth mother, Leslie
We had a great relationship for a number of years. She skipped my high school graduation, which is where this book ends ... so I went off to college without having had any contact with her. But my grandparents made sure we were all together for Thanksgiving, so over the years we did develop a great relationship.
We danced at my wedding. She got to meet my first two kids. But it was when my second child was born that she started getting into trouble again, started getting arrested again. And while she wouldn't say as much, it was pretty clear that she started using again, and she certainly was surrounding herself by some nefarious individuals...
The last time I saw her was about a year before she died, and we left it with, she said to me, "I love you and I always will." And without missing a beat I said, "I love you and I always will."
She never really took ownership, though, of any of the stuff that happened — she would often say "when are you just going to get over it?" Which is a tough thing to say to a kid.
Correction: October 6, 2018 12:00 am — A previous version of this story misspelled Worcester as Wooster and then as Worchester.