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Jarrett Krosoczka chronicles his difficult childhood in the graphic memoir, ‘Hey, Kiddo’

  • Photographs of Jarrett Krosoczka’s family. His grandparents, Joe and Shirley, who raised him, are in the middle photograph. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A picture of Joe Krosoczka, Jarrett Krosoczka’s grandfather, in Krosoczka’s Easthampton studio. His grandfather always supported his dream of being an artist, he said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • In his graphic memoir “Hey, Kiddo,” Jarrett Krosoczka’s first book for young adult readers, he tells a coming-of-age story that also tackles his mother’s heroin addiction. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Some early self-portraits from “Hey, Kiddo” of Krosoczka as a young boy and a teenager. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An early draft from a scene in the prologue of “Hey, Kiddo,” in which a teenage Jarrett Krosoczka visits a cemetery with his grandfather, Joe. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka pages through his new book, “Hey, Kiddo,” a graphic memoir of his early life. It’s his first book for young adult readers. At right is a letter his mother, Leslie, wrote him when he was boy. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka compares an earlier drawing from “Hey, Kiddo” with the finished scene from the book. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka did hundreds of initial sketches, detailed line drawings and colored backing pages for “Hey, Kiddo,” his longest work ever — over 300 pages. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka, seen here in his Easthampton studio, says many people — most notably his wife, Gina, and his late grandparents — helped him become a successful children’s book author and artist through their steadfast support. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka thumbs through some of the many drawings he compiled for his new book, the graphic memoir “Hey, Kiddo.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka says many people — most notably his wife, Gina, and his late grandparents — helped him become a children’s book author and artist. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka says he handled all the artwork for his new book “Hey, Kiddo” because “I didn’t want anyone’s hands on the book but mine.” Graphic novelists typically contract out some of the background coloring, he says. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jarrett Krosoczka, seen here in his Easthampton studio, says many people — most notably his wife, Gina, and his late grandparents — helped him become a successful children’s book author and artist through their steadfast support. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sequence from “Hey, Kiddo” shows Jarrett Krosoczka’s evolution as an artist from childhood to his later teenage years — as well as his reasons for drawing. Image courtesy of Jarrett Krosoczka

  • When he was 3, Jarrett Krosoczka’s grandparents told him he’d be staying with them “for some time” because his mother, Leslie, “had to go away.” It would be years until he found out how her heroin addiction consigned her to jail and halfway houses. Image courtesy of Jarrett Krosoczka

  • When Jarrett Krosoczka was in junior high school, his grandparents signed him up for drawing classes at an art museum in Worcester and bought him his first drafting table. Image courtesy of Jarrett Krosoczka

  • As a teen, Jarrett Krosoczka came to realize that even if he didn’t have his mother, he had lots of family: older and younger brothers and sisters, good friends and especially his grandparents. “They weren’t always perfect, but they were mine.” Image courtesy of Jarrett Krosoczka

  • When he was 17, Jarrett Krosoczka met his father, Richard Hennessy, and his younger half-brother and sister, Richard and Maura, to whom he remains close today. Image courtesy of Jarrett Krosoczka

  • Jarrett Krosoczka has some good but also darker memories of the time when he lived with his mother as a very young boy. His mother, also a talented artist, was “a good person who made bad decisions,” he writes. Image courtesy of Jarrett Krosoczka

  • A letter Jarrett Krosoczka’s mother wrote to him when he was a boy describes making matching scarves: one for him, and one for the hamster his grandparents bought him. Image courtesy of Jarrett Krosoczka



Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 03, 2018

In a childhood that had its fair share of pain and confusion, Jarrett J. Krosoczka can recall a couple of incidents that really stood out.

When he was three, his grandparents, Joe and Shirley Krosoczka, told him a few days before Christmas that he’d be living with them “for some time” because his mother “had to go away,” as his grandmother put it. He burst into tears, not understanding what was happening.

Then, when he was in fourth grade, and still living with Joe and Shirley, Krosoczka found out why he’d only had periodic contact with his mother, Leslie, over the years, sometimes in odd “homes” where other adults lived: She was a heroin addict whose habit often consigned her to jail and halfway houses. His father, meanwhile, was not in the picture; he wouldn’t meet him until he was in his teens.

“It was a shock,” said Krosoczka, 40, the award-winning children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Florence. “It was the first glimpse I really had that life was different for me than for friends and the kids I went to school with.”

Krosoczka, who was born and raised in Worcester, has shared parts of his life story over the years in interviews and in public talks, most notably his 2012 TED Talk, which went viral and has more than a million views. But it’s never been a subject of the more than 30 books he’s published: picture books for young children; the “Lunch Lady” graphic novel series and the “Platypus Police Squad” chapter books for elementary school students; and a host of other titles that generally offer a sunny — and funny — outlook on life.

But in his latest book, “Hey, Kiddo,” by Scholastic Press, Krosoczka tackles his story head-on, in a graphic memoir and coming-of-age story whose subtitle spells out the basic themes: “How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction.” It’s his first young adult title — he said it’s also the first graphic novel/memoir that Scholastic has published for an older audience — and it’s also his biggest project ever, more than 300 pages long and based on hundreds of initial sketches, finished drawings and hand-painted backdrop pages, as well as lots of combing through family archives.

From an emotional standpoint, it’s by far the weightiest book of his career, one that he’d been thinking about, in one way or another, for almost 20 years.

“I first thought of writing it when I was 22 and had just gotten the contract for my first book,” Krosoczka said during a recent interview in his studio, in the Eastworks building in Easthampton. “I’d achieved this happy ending, I’d achieved my dream, and I thought ‘Now I can tell my story.’ But every time I’d write something, I’d hesitate and think ‘Oh, what is this person going to think about this?’”

Indeed, though there’s nothing x-rated or inflammatory in it, and no one is portrayed harshly, “Hey, Kiddo” doesn’t shy away from showing some of the warts of Krosoczka’s loved ones. Shirley, much as she loved her grandson, was a heavy drinker who could become foul-mouthed under the influence, and her fights with Joe — and with Leslie — could get ugly. The story also includes grim scenes of Leslie using heroin and hanging around with dangerous-looking characters, or getting arrested for shoplifting to pay for her habit; the teenage Krosoczka is often angry with her, feeling she’s always cared more for drugs than for him.

“There are some hard truths in the book,” said Krosoczka, still boyish looking but now with a few traces of gray in his hair.

But though he tells it from the standpoint of his 17-year-old self, Krosoczka also brings a sense of compassion to the story, something that’s been filtered through his experience of fatherhood — he and his wife, Gina, have two daughters and a son ranging from ages 9 to 2 — and simply acquiring the kind of broader perspective he lacked in his 20s, such as an understanding of how some people can’t break free of addiction.

“If I had written this book at 22, it would have been very black and white, with heroes and villains,” he said. “Becoming a parent myself gave me so much more sympathy for my mother because it made me realize, ‘Wow, that must have been very difficult for her.’ Letting me go must have been so devastating for her. But at the same time, she knew she wasn’t capable of raising me.”

Indeed, as he writes in an afterword in “Hey, Kiddo,” his mother was “a good person who made bad decisions.”

“Hey, Kiddo” — the title comes from the way Krosoczka’s grandfather and his mother often addressed him — has received excellent initial reviews (it will be released Oct. 9), and it’s also been long-listed, with nine other titles, for a National Book Award for young people’s literature. What critics note is the warmth Krosoczka has documented amid the chaos of his early life — like his mother taking him and his boyhood friends to an impromptu party at McDonald’s one day because she’d missed his real birthday, or his grandparents signing him up for art classes at a Worcester museum and buying him a drafting board when he was in junior high school.

Never that far away, though, is the warning of how addiction can plague a family in different ways: not just in ruining a substance abuser’s life, but in leaving anger, confusion, guilt and misunderstanding in its wake. Krosoczka said his grandparents, who died when he was in his 20s, were very loving. But they were also stoic children of the Great Depression who rarely discussed Leslie with him (they took legal custody of him when he was 4).

“When (addiction) isn’t talked about, it’s isolating for the kid,” he said. “Living through that as a kid, I had no idea anyone else might have this problem. … That’s a big part of why I wrote the book, to share that story with people, with kids and families, who may be going through the same thing.”

In fact, it was Krosoczka’s TED Talk that finally crystalized his plans to write “Hey, Kiddo.” Following that presentation — one that Gina had encouraged him to make — he began hearing from many people: on social media, in emails and in schools he visited to give readings. All of them shared their stories of family addiction with him.

“That’s when a switch went off, when I went from saying ‘This is a book I want to write’ to ‘This is a book I need to write,’ ” he said.

He was also intent on doing it all himself, given its intense, personal subject matter. He said it’s standard practice in the industry for graphic novelists to have other artists do the background coloring work on their books, but Krosoczka hand-colored all his pages (he also did some coloring digitally).

“I didn’t want anyone’s hands on this book but mine,” he said with a laugh.

And as much a fan as he is of other writers’ graphic novels, he also didn’t want to employ the bright colors and flat drawings that he said are often used in such books. His palette consists of muted gray, burnt orange and other earth tones; some sequences, like recurring nightmares from his childhood in which he’s attacked by monsters, have a largely black background.

“The colors really function like emotions,” he said.

Throughout the book, Krosoczka has also added scanned-in images of his original artwork from childhood and adolescence, as well as letters his mother wrote to him (these often included drawings, as Krosoczka said Leslie was also a talented artist) when she was incarcerated, giving “Hey, Kiddo” an even more personal touch.

He tells an engaging story as well, one filled with interesting characters, like his grandparents’ other children — technically his aunts and uncles — who became much more like older brothers and sisters to him. There are portraits of Pat, his best friend from childhood, teachers who encourage him to pursue his artwork, even a pair of thuggish upperclassmen who bully him in gym one day when he first arrives in high school.

And there are Joe and Shirley, too, chain-smoking their way through frame after frame. Krososzka fills in the background of how they met in high school in Worcester as the U.S. got swept up in World War II and later married, raising five of their own children before they took him in.

Running through the book as well is his fierce desire to be an artist, in part to try and express himself — and to keep some of his personal demons at bay. In one sequence, he depicts himself drawing as a young boy, a junior high student, and then as an older teen, with the captions indicating he had drawn at first to get attention from family and friends — but that in high school, “I fill sketchbooks just to deal with life. To survive.”

For all its serious subject matter, “Hey, Kiddo” has plenty of humor, too, like the scene where Krosoczka is asked to paint a mural of the high school mascot, a caricature of Napoléon Bonaparte, in one of the hallways. He crafts the mural in such a way that a light switch on the wall ends up precisely at the figure’s crotch.

One of the book’s emotional high points recounts how the author finally met his father, Richard Hennessy, when he was 17, as well as his young half-brother and sister, Maura and Richard (Richard Hennessy’s children through another marriage). He said he’s close to all three of them today, especially his brother and sister.

Several members of his family, including his younger brother and sister, read early drafts of his book to give him feedback, and his father also consented to having his name in the story, though Krosoczka offered to use a pseudonym to save him any embarrassment from being shown as not having raised him when he was a boy.

“He said he was proud to be my father and didn’t want anyone to think otherwise,” Krosoczka said. “That meant a lot to me.”

The story ends with Krosoczka’s graduation from high school, but there’s a coda: In his afterword, he relates that his mother died of a heroin overdose in early 2017 as he was working on final edits on the text. It was a harsh but not unexpected moment for her son, who had only intermittent contact with Leslie once he became a parent; he had not wanted his children to be around her when she was using heroin, though she also had periods when she got clean and worked.

“It was sad, it was emotional, but in a way it helped me realize I’d made the right decision in putting some space between myself and my mother,” he said. “Not that it was easy — there were so many times I’d woken up in the middle of the night and thought ‘What have I done? How can I do this to her?’ ”

In the end, he believes Leslie would have liked his book and its message about addiction, especially if it helps readers going through a similar experience. As he writes in the afterword, he always knew his mother “loved me very much. And I was lucky to have that love; it carries me to this day. ... Her drawings inspired me and encouraged me to do something productive with the same gifts I had been given.”

Jarrett Krosoczka will read from “Hey, Kiddo” on Sunday, Oct. 14 at 4 p.m. at R. Michelson Galleries, 132 Main St. in Northampton. He’ll be joined afterward for a discussion on children’s literature by Northampton writer Jeanne Birdsall, author of the “Penderwick” series of young adult books. His website is studiojjk.com.