Class Act by Jerry Craft
Eighth grader Drew Ellis is no stranger to the saying “You have to work twice as hard to be just as good.” His grandmother has reminded him his entire life. But what if he works ten times as hard and still isn’t afforded the same opportunities that his privileged classmates at the Riverdale Academy Day School take for granted?
To make matters worse, Drew begins to feel as if his good friend Liam might be one of those privileged kids. He wants to pretend like everything is fine, but it’s hard not to withdraw, and even their mutual friend Jordan doesn’t know how to keep the group together.
As the pressures mount, will Drew find a way to bridge the divide so he and his friends can truly accept each other? And most important, will he finally be able to accept himself?
Wow. I will literally pick up anything by Jerry Craft at this point. This book was just SO OUTSTANDING, I devoured it in an hour. While you don’t have to have read New Kid first, this book (especially the beginning) will make a lot more sense if you do, plus New Kid is amazing, so there’s that.
New Kid followed first former (seventh grader) Jordan as a scholarship student at a mostly-white private school in the Bronx. While Jordan and his insightful comics are still present in Class Act, it primarily focuses on Drew, who is also a scholarship student as the boys start second form (eighth grade). But Drew and Jordan are very different kids with different viewpoints and experiences. I love how that brings to life the reality that Black people are not interchangeable, AND that there’s no wrong way to be black.
The downside to the novel following Drew, for me, is that he’s not my favorite character-type like Jordan was. (Seriously, I have a definite character-type.) But on the flip side, many readers will like Drew better and connect more with his experiences.
Drew’s experience with racism are also more direct and obvious than Jordan’s were, and in some ways this novel ends up being about race, rather than about Drew. It’s a bigger part of his identity than it was Jordan’s, I think. But also, Drew’s personal arc outside of race doesn’t get fleshed out as well as Jordan’s did, and we never do find out if he goes out for the basketball team. Because of this, Class Act seems to follow less of a narrative and is more a snapshot of particular moments. I LOVED that, and I think kids are ready to start appreciating that kind of story.
While the tone of this book is a more serious overall than the first, it still has a sense of humor. Craft’s art is outstanding and in particular is adept at showing how characters feel. Characters grow and develop throughout the book. Nobody is presented as one-dimensional. Repeat, NOBODY.
My absolute favorite thing about this book, though, is the HOPE. Throughout the novel Drew feels hopeless that race relations between himself and his white classmates and teachers can ever improve. But in the end, there is a glimmer of hope. Liam comes to his neighborhood and sees through Drew’s eyes. The terrible trying-to-be-an-ally teacher ACTUALLY learns something and is genuinely trying. Things at Riverdale aren’t perfect, but maybe they can get better. Things in America aren’t perfect, but maybe they can get better. I’m not perfect, but maybe I can get better.
I love this book, I love this series, I love Jerry Craft. I highly recommend this book to middle graders and adults of all stripes.