MMGM and #IMWAYR (3/1/2021): Class Act by Jerry Craft
I hope everyone is doing all right this week! I swear that some actual prose reviews are in the pipeline, but because I haven't gotten around to them yet, I have one more graphic novel review today for MMGM and #IMWAYR of Class Act by Jerry Craft.
Please note that there are some spoilers in the below review that I have tagged so you can avoid them if need be.
Class Act is the sequel to the highly acclaimed graphic novel New Kid, which was the first graphic novel ever to win the Newbery Medal! And it deserved it too, as it managed to create a complex yet accessible examination of racism within the framework of a hilarious and energetic graphic novel. Class Act follows in New Kid's footsteps by continuing to examine Jordan, Drew, and Liam, with Drew acting as the protagonist (in theory, as you'll see), as they navigate life at Riverdale Academy Day School. As the school administration is executing numerous mediocre attempts at antiracism, Drew is grappling with the contrast between Liam's shockingly wealthy family and his own far less privileged life (funded by the many jobs of his grandmother), his almost-dating with a racially insensitive student named Ashley, and more. Jordan, Drew, and Liam continue to navigate racial issues in a world and school that do not set them up for success...and they find that acknowledging their differences and finding the ones worth celebrating might be the first step.
This is a weird review to write, because I have seen reviewer after reviewer after reviewer loving Class Act (a while back, it was rightfully picked as a Cybils finalist, and their blurb of it says, "Since when is a sequel better than the original?"). And yet, while Class Act has an enormous amount of value, to me at least, it just did not meet the expectations set by New Kid. I do want to remind everyone that my thoughts are just my opinion and far from representative of what other readers think, but they are still what I thought after reading this book. Before I bring up my criticisms, I want to first praise what I think Class Act did really well. Like New Kid, Class Act is filled
to the brim over the brim with valuable insights about race and racism. Class Act tackles issues from White people's bizarre and deeply concerning need to touch Black people's hair (you would have thought not doing that was common sense, but no) to the terror of Black people as they are pulled over by the police. The book explores White privilege and class disparities through Drew's conflict with Liam (Drew wonders how they can be friends if Liam's family lives a lavish and wasteful lifestyle while Drew's grandmother works several jobs to keep herself and her grandson afloat), as well as a visit at Riverdale Academy Day School of Black students from a far poorer public school. Class Act also draws up a truly embarrassing portrait of White people's attempts at antiracism (specifically those of the Riverdale Academy Day School administration), pointing out White people's obsession with finding ways they are the same as non-White people instead of accepting and celebrating their differences and also poking fun at White people's fear of "being canceled" after saying something that could be misinterpreted as racist and then backtracking so much that they just make it far worse. The students in Class Act do a far better job of learning to talk about and navigate concepts regarding race, creating an immensely valuable model for readers to learn from. Finally, Class Act also brings up the idea that it is harmful to only have stories about Black people's struggles and travails, and that it is necessary to create more stories that show the joys Black people experience. While I do worry that readers may take away from this theme that Black people do not suffer at all (they do, thanks to systemic racism), I think this is nevertheless an important idea to bring up. It's really amazing that Class Act brings up so many different and valuable points in such an accessible format, but just as impressive is how entertaining the book manages to be in spite of such heavy topics! There are quite a few hilarious visual gags and lines (on page 171, Jordan asks, "Do you think being an adult is easier or harder?" and Drew responds, "Probably the same, but you have to pay bills."). Quite a few characters are entertaining as well—Alexandra and her hand puppets make a brief but deeply entertaining appearance in Class Act, much to my delight! And the opening pages for each chapter are still references to pop culture—this time, many reference other graphic novels (so I understood the references for once!).
So that's my praise—now for some criticism. Both New Kid and Class Act deal with a lot of different characters and details and ideas, split up more into vignettes than into a beginning-to-end plot. This structure gives the books a lot of space to examine different ideas and topics, and in the case of New Kid, it still stayed organized enough to be easy to follow and satisfying to read. However, I felt that Class Act struggled under the weight of all of its ideas, leaving lots of loose ends and confusing moments in its wake. The thing that frustrates me most of all about Class Act is that Drew, the supposed main character, really gets the short end of the stick. Although we do have some interesting scenes that show us more about Drew and his life specifically (his life is far less privileged than Jordan's, Liam's, or his other classmates'), I still felt like all we really saw of him was in relation to Jordan and Liam. While Jordan got to have a plot line about his immaturity (and got many of the comic strips he draws showcased for readers), and Liam got some details about his wealthy but somewhat dysfunctional family, Drew really didn't get any internal struggles besides whether or not he should play on the school basketball team (which he would enjoy, but which would play into stereotypes of Black people)—and he doesn't even make a decision by the end of the book! It doesn't help that Drew doesn't get to narrate the story at all, and he doesn't get anything comparable to Jordan's comic strips (many of which are actually about Drew but are narrated by Jordan and thus don't really dig into Drew's inner world). You can really tell that Drew is an excellent character, and this book was supposed to be his moment in the spotlight, but I felt like Jordan in particular continued to take the attention away from him. (Jordan's emotional climax even takes up the last page of the book, with Drew's big moment relegated to the penultimate page!) And yet, because the book is mostly centered around Drew's experiences at school, Jordan and Liam's character development doesn't get enough attention either—Liam's family dysfunction stays unresolved, Jordan's fears of immaturity arise and change largely in the background, and Jordan's concern about potentially leaving his current school for art school also remains unresolved and honestly feels dragged out at this point.
A bit more criticism (this would have all been one paragraph, but then I think everyone's eyes would have glazed over). Drew's conflict with Liam felt really strange to me—*spoilers begin* Drew gets mad, then is talked out of his anger by another character, then gets mad again and avoids Liam, then stops avoiding Liam or being actively mad but remains somewhat mad in the back of his mind, then finally brings it up with Liam at a much later point *spoilers end*. I get that we can't possibly expect middle-schoolers to be excellent conflict solvers, but Drew is clearly smart enough to know better than that—not to mention that the strange resolution leaves readers somewhat confused and reduces the tension of the event. There are also a few "wait, what happened?" spots in the book, like when Drew meets a teacher, Ms. Burke, who empathizes with Drew and tells her that she also struggles to fit in (for an undisclosed reason)...and then she never appears again and gets no further development. Finally, there is an event toward the end of the book where *spoilers begin again* in an attempt to be antiracist, the school administrators call an assembly to show the students a gruesome and depressing film about Black people based on a book written by a White person, causing Drew and Jordan to face a bunch of pity from White students. This event seemed somewhat unrealistic (and preachy) in the first place, but what was especially weird was that Drew's sort-of-girlfriend, the racially insensitive Ashley, chose this moment to tell Drew that she needs to get to know him (and presumably his experiences) more. The film and resulting pity are unequivocally portrayed as bad things, but Ashley being catalyzed by the film to learn from Drew is portrayed as a good thing, which seemed very weird and off-message. The school administration magically figuring out how to be antiracist at the end of the story, without any criticism of their previous actions, and with the librarian putting the onus on Jordan and Drew to help find diverse books for the library (why isn't she capable of doing that?) seems even more off-message and strange *spoilers end*.
You might think from all of the above criticism that I believe Class Act is a bad book, but it's more complex than that. Class Act, like New Kid, takes on the challenge of playing two roles: the role of a story, with characters and plot, and the role of a teacher, with lessons about racism and antiracism. Class Act's points about race are absolutely spot-on and add even more value to the points set forth by New Kid, making this book a necessary read to educate yourself in a fun way (especially if you've already read New Kid, which is an absolute must-read for pretty much any reader of MG books)! It's a shame that Class Act falls short in its role as a story of three friends, but I'll hold out hope that the likely sequel (which I would imagine will center around Liam) will resolve some of my complaints. In the meantime, read New Kid because you absolutely must, and read Class Act because you can learn a great deal from it while staying up-to-date on the adventures of Jordan, Drew, and Liam!
My rating is: Really good!