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In 'Hey, Kiddo,' Jarrett Krosoczka Sketches Childhood, A Mom's Addiction

Oct 5, 2018
Originally published on October 7, 2018 6:09 am

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.


Interview Highlights

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Jarrett Krosoczka writes books for kids, and he loves to make them laugh - picture books like "Punk Farm," the action-packed "Lunch Lady" graphic novels, his series about the Platypus Police Squad - seriously silly and funny stuff all around. His new book is different. It's a graphic memoir about his childhood. And there are funny moments, but the story it tells is serious. Our co-host Audie Cornish takes it from here.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Krosoczka was raised in Massachusetts by his grandparents Joe and Shirl. In his telling, they drink, smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and yell at each other. They adore him. His mother is in and out of the picture. She is addicted to heroin. She gets high and hangs out with strange men. She ignores her son. She gets arrested and sent to prison. Now, in words and pictures, he details all of this. His new book is called "Hey, Kiddo." Jarrett Krosoczka told me that at first, he did live with his mother.

JARRETT KROSOCZKA: She 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 (ph) and Holly (ph). 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.

And they'd come home in tears, and they'd say, Mom, Dad, we got to get that kid out of that house. And 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 into - to become a ward of the state.

CORNISH: You also write vividly about what it's like to be raised by grandparents. And at one point, there is a scene of them picking out their headstones. And you talk about the idea that you're, even as a young child in that scenario, kind of living with death.

KROSOCZKA: They were planners, right? So they were, like, wanting to make sure all their estates were in order should something tragic happen. So - and I was an 8-year-old kid, and they would very - talk openly about, you know, their will, 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 (laughter).

And, yes, they picked out their headstone, and they - 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, their - you know, my grandparents who are my parents - their first names and their birth years but no death dates.

CORNISH: That's a lot to handle.

(LAUGHTER)

KROSOCZKA: It's a lot to handle.

CORNISH: Like, you're laughing now.

KROSOCZKA: Yeah.

CORNISH: But, I mean, at the time, like, were you a quiet kid? Were - like, how did you take this in?

KROSOCZKA: Well, they were very funny people, too. So my grandfather would say, you know, when they bury me, put me closer to the street so I can sneak out at night. And then my grandmother would be like, you bastard.

(LAUGHTER)

KROSOCZKA: And this is all - you know, we're on radio, so you can't see me, but I'm miming taking a cigarette in and out because that's how they spoke.

(LAUGHTER)

KROSOCZKA: My grandmother reminded me often that I was very lucky not to be addicted to heroin when I was born. She would - you know, anytime there might be a news report, you know, in the early, mid-'80s about, you know, kids who were addicted to drugs when they were born, she would just pull out her cigarettes. Like, you know, you're lucky you weren't born like that, right? You know that, right (laughter)?

CORNISH: Yikes (laughter).

KROSOCZKA: Yeah, you know...

CORNISH: Thank you.

KROSOCZKA: I'm 7. Thank you, whatever.

CORNISH: So you begin to draw - right? - when you're very young. And what kind of outlet does that become for you?

KROSOCZKA: It becomes an escape. It becomes the one world that I can control, right? So 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 teen years.

CORNISH: Really?

KROSOCZKA: And looking through them, all I could think about - that kid was angry (laughter), you know? My grandparents never once considered, you know, putting me into therapy, and part of that was their generation.

CORNISH: Right.

KROSOCZKA: They came of age in the Great Depression. You just didn't talk about things. And so, you know, I had friends that 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, it gave me an outlet.

CORNISH: You write in your dedication - you write in addition to your grandparents and mom, you say that the book is, quote, "for every reader who recognizes this experience. I see you." There is a rise in the number of grandparents raising their kids - right? - because...

KROSOCZKA: Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: ...Of the opioid crisis. And when you read these stories, do you think, oh, God, there's a lot of kids who are going to go through what I'm going through or what I went through?

KROSOCZKA: 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, you know? And I didn't think any other of my peers at my elementary school or grade school had these sorts of problems. And come to find out later, I mean, they certainly did. So 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.

CORNISH: In the book, you do kind of reconcile with your birth father. You find him, and you develop a kind of relationship. With your birth mother, do you feel like you ended up having a good relationship? Do you feel like you kind of forgave her for how you grew up?

KROSOCZKA: We had a great relationship for a number of years. So she skipped my high school graduation, which is where this book ends. Sorry, spoiler alert - (laughter) the kid graduates high school. And...

CORNISH: Congratulations.

KROSOCZKA: Thank you. And so I went off to college without having had any contact with her. But my grandparents made sure that we were all together for Thanksgiving. And so over the years, we did develop a great relationship. We danced at my wedding. You know, she got to meet my first two kids. But it was when my second child was born that she started getting into trouble again. She 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.

But I did - my - the last discussion - the last time I saw her was about a year before she died. And we left it - 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, or - you sort of learn to move past things, but it's certainly nice when at least someone owns up to their poor behavior...

CORNISH: Right.

KROSOCZKA: ...Which she was never able to do.

CORNISH: Well, Jarrett Krosoczka, thank you so much for speaking with us and for sharing your family's story.

KROSOCZKA: Well, thank you so much for having me, Audie. It was a pleasure, and truly honored to be here.

SHAPIRO: Jarrett Krosoczka's new book, a memoir, is called "Hey, Kiddo."

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK HAKIM SONG, "I DON'T KNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.