Jarrett Krosoczka uses art to come to terms with a difficult childhood


Published: 10-01-2018 8:47 AM

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, meantime, was not in the picture; he wouldn’t meet him until he was in his teens.

“It was a shock,” says 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 TED Talk of 2012, which went viral afterward and has been viewed over a million times. 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 says 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?’ ”

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

He was also intent on doing it all himself, given its intense, personal subject matter. He says 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 says, laughing.

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 says 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 says.

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 says 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 says 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,” said 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 in Northampton, 132 Main St. 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.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.