Jarrett J. Krosoczka, STAR WARS: JEDI ACADEMY

Jarrett J. Krosoczka, STAR WARS: JEDI ACADEMY

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jarrett. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jarrett Krosoczka: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You have written so many different amazing things. I almost don’t know where to start. When I first got pitched you coming on this podcast, I was like, oh, my gosh. All of the Star Wars books, my kids have been reading for years. I was like, they’re going to think that’s really cool.

Jarrett: That’s so sweet.

Zibby: Then, as I showed you, the picture of my seven-year-old who was reading Lunch Lady in bed and absolutely loved it. Then I loved Hey, Kiddo, oh, my gosh. I’ve never really read a memoir in graphic novel before as a grown-up. I just want you to talk about everything, but let’s start with Hey, Kiddo. This was really moving and amazing. Your story, I know you’ve done this TED talk that a billion people have watched. Tell me about this memoir first. That was a long intro.

Jarrett: I appreciate all of the effusiveness. Hey, Kiddo is a story about my life growing up. My mother was addicted to heroin. I was raised by her parents who were alcoholics minus the label. I didn’t know who my father was. But I had art. I always use art as a way to rise above my situation. In 2001 when my very first picture book was published, I thought, here’s the happy ending for this kid who always loved to draw. His mother loved to draw, but she had addictions. She was incarcerated. Then every time I sat down to write what would become Hey, Kiddo, I would stop because I’d find myself censoring it. What is this person going to think about how they’re depicted? I realized that if I wasn’t ready to be all in and really tell my story, I just wasn’t ready to write the book. I went on to write more picture books and then the Lunch Lady books. As I was working on Lunch Lady — the Lunch Lady was published initially between the years 2009 and 2012, which means in the early/mid-2000s, I was actively making the books. My mind would wander. I would start drawing my grandparents or who I was as a teenager. The idea of writing about my life was always there percolating.

You mentioned that TED talk. Actually, it was October of 2012 when I gave that talk. I was a last-minute replacement. I was home. It was a Friday afternoon, which is miraculous that I was home because I tour all the time giving lectures at schools and libraries. The fact that I happened to be home that Friday afternoon — my phone rang. Even the fact that I didn’t have the number programed into my phone and I still answered it, I’m really putting myself out there. Who is this? I don’t know who this is, but it’s a local area code. It was a producer at the TEDx talks happening at Hampshire College which is the next town over for me. They said, “We had a last-minute cancellation. Would you be willing to sub in?” I always thought, wouldn’t it be cool to give a TED talk? I thought she meant it was next week or the next day. Then she said, “No, it’s tonight. It starts in four hours.” The thing is, my wife Gina and I, we had planned to go out to dinner. The whole family is constantly sacrificing their schedules for the demands of my work. I said, “You know what? Let me call you back.” I said, “Gina, let’s talk about this. Should I do it?” Then she got mad. “Why the hell didn’t you say yes right away?” like I was dumb. “Say yes to the talk.” I committed with four hours to go and immediately began pacing the floor of my kitchen out of, what am I going to talk about? Gina’s like, “You’re thinking too into it. The story’s right there in front of you. You should write about your childhood.” I started spitballing. “I’ll get up there and I’ll say, I love to draw and my mother loved to draw, but she was addicted to drugs.” Gina stopped me. She said, “No, your mother was addicted to heroin. You should say that.”

I had a slideshow that I had just put together for educators for a sixty-minute talk. Of course, now the TED talk can’t be longer than eighteen minutes. Editing it down, jumping in the shower, getting dressed, and then of course our babysitter cancelled on us. Imagine if I had said no and then the babysitter cancelled. There would’ve been no date night and no TED talk. Gina couldn’t come with me, which was probably for the better because it was almost easier to be so vulnerable without making eye contact with her and seeing how that story pains her. I arrived at the venue. They said, “There’s your seat.” I took my seat. The lights went down. The first speaker went up. I didn’t even go through that talk ever. I went up there and I talked about my mother’s heroin addiction. The talk went viral. The response of kids at schools made me realize, okay, I have a story that I’ve been trying to write. I used to think I want to write this book. Now I realize I need to. That’s something I’ve truly come to realize. Especially memoir, we don’t write memoir because we want to, but we feel compelled to because our experiences can help other people through whatever they’re dealing with or understanding other people’s path in this life.

Zibby: Wow. After the TED talk when you had essentially outed everything in your history, did it even create a ripple? Did you worry at all about then releasing the book, or was it over?

Jarrett: What the TED talk taught me was how to deal with strangers talking to you about your private life.

Zibby: How do you do that?

Jarrett: It was good training. For me, it was good training. If I had just had the memoir, I think I really would’ve been overwhelmed by the response. Slowly over the years, I would connect with people. I learned how to also accept people’s pain and still remain in one piece for myself. Then anytime something would come up, being an interview or something, there would be another wave of people reaching out to me. I learned how to find the right balance of making myself available to readers but then also exercising self-care. By the time I book-toured for Hey, Kiddo two years ago, I really was prepared for what was to come. There were grandparents handing me photos of their grandkids that they were raising at home. Hey, Kiddo‘s young adult. It’s for ages twelve and up. As you’ve read the book, I didn’t censor anything. My grandmother cursed like a sailor, used to be a trucker. At one of my book events, there was a ten-year-old there. I was known especially as the Lunch Lady guy or Jedi Academy, these young, fun stuff. Now I was really conscious of the fact that there might be someone who thinks this is going to be Lunch Lady, but I’m going to be talking about my mom’s addiction to heroin. I didn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome. What I would do is I’d have a slideshow of praise quotes. I explained what the book was before the event started. Then that family came up after the book signing. That ten-year-old was there because her thirteen-year-old elder brother had overdosed and died. Those are stories that I’ll carry with me for all my days. Those are the stories that validate, for me, why I wrote this, so those young readers and older readers could feel less alone.

Zibby: Do you feel now, a little more pessimistic about how widespread this is as an issue for families in America today?

Jarrett: I don’t know if I feel more pessimistic about it. I think people who are dealing with opioid addictions, not fully but more so than when I was young, are really looked at someone who’s battling an illness versus having a moral failing. If I was growing up today, I would’ve had more resources to understand that my mother was ill and that she just wasn’t a “bad person” as it was always painted for me.

Zibby: Then I read when you wrote at the end that while you were editing the book your mother passed away. That’s so awful. Tell me a little bit about the timing of that and how you handled that.

Jarrett: We had been estranged for a couple of years at that point. When my second kid was born, she started getting arrested again. For a number of years, the only way I knew what she was up to — I had to say, “I have a young family. I have a three-year-old. I have a newborn baby. You’re getting arrested again. I can’t have this in my life right now,” the most difficult thing I could ever do. As much as I loved and wanted to take care of my mom, I knew that my most important role was that of a parent myself. These young children needed me. I couldn’t get pulled into a lot of that stuff. We exchanged a few text messages. I saw her a year prior to her death at a different family funeral. We made peace with one another. When I got the news that she had died of a heroin overdose, I wasn’t surprised. I was gutted and sad but then also relieved to know that she wasn’t suffering anymore. I kind of liken it to when someone’s had, maybe, terminal cancer for a really long time. She started using when she was twelve, thirteen years old. She lived well into her late fifties. She had a really long life for someone who lived such a lifestyle.

When I was cleaning her house after she died, I was really confronted the ugliness of her plight. That brought a deeper understanding of what she went through more than anything. When you’re a kid and you have a parent who has an addiction, for me, I would always think, and I hear this from other people too, that you chose drugs over me. In seeing what she dealt with right to the end, I realized she only chose drugs once, and that was well before I was ever born. She wanted nothing more but to be a parent and be there and to be a grandmother. Even on my first kid’s first birthday, she got in touch with me not to wish my kid a happy birthday, but to ask for money. It was things like that where, I mentioned this at the TED talk, it is like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. You keep trying because you hope maybe you make contact.

Zibby: You seem to be in such a psychologically healthy place talking about this.

Jarrett: Should I get Gina down here? She could tell you the whole other side of the coin.

Zibby: That makes me almost feel better. You mentioned how you wish you had had therapy as a child, but you’re lucky enough to have had it as an adult. That was just something your grandparents didn’t really believe in and all the rest. You seem like you have made peace with this in such a profound way. Now all you do is basically give back to other people with your books and illustrations and even during the pandemic, all your drawing shows. Is that all because of this therapist?

Jarrett: No, no, no. It was because of my grandfather. My grandfather was a very altruistic man. He never forgot where he came from. He always would say to me, “Remember your station in life. Remember your last name.” He grew up with nothing. A place that gave him a lot of opportunities was the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester. He, his entire life, would support them and donate to them. My grandparents raised me. They didn’t believe in therapy, but you know what? They always gave me empty sketchbooks and art supplies. They, in their own way, provided me a space to work through a lot of that stuff. I will say, when I finished Hey, Kiddo, that was not closing a chapter, but it was very healing because it was a hard book to write. I liken it to in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Professor Umbridge is making Harry write lines with the blood quill and every time he writes “I shall not tell lies” it’s getting singed into the back of his hand. That’s kind of what it felt like at times.

Then when I finished it, I was like, wow, I lived through that and I’m stronger for it. Then it published, which was this other wave of anxiety and nerves. Weeks before the book published, I thought, I can’t ask them not to publish it. I signed a contract. They’ve spent all this time and money to put the book out there. Then again, it’s getting those responses from the readers that I say, okay, that’s why that pain was worth it. Going through the challenges of writing the book was worth it for that. I was sixteen when I started working at a camp for children with cancer. It was that experience too that taught me there are so many different kinds of pain. I have my pain. These families have their pain. Being of service to somebody, that lifts your spirits more than anything. One of the camps that I worked at was the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp which was founded by Paul Newman. His oft-used quote was that the mathematics of the whole thing didn’t really make sense because no matter how much you put in, you get so much more out of that sort of work.

Zibby: Wow, that’s beautiful and so inspiring.

Jarrett: And totally paraphrased and butchered. He said it much more eloquently than I just put it.

Zibby: No, not that quote. I mean, that’s lovely. I just meant the whole story, the way you’re able to channel your life into such a giving outcome, essentially. Tell me a little more about the drawing show that you launched recently.

Jarrett: January 1st, 2020, as we all looked to the great new year ahead of us and we think, what do we want to accomplish or what do we want to work on? my new year’s resolution was, I would like to do more webcasting. I would like to do more live videos. I’d like to create more videos for my YouTube. Step one is, how am I going to achieve this goal? I have three kids. I thought the only way that I could really make this work would be to carve out a space that would be just for recording. I’m in a room in my basement. It’s a small little room. I have my flat files over here. It was just a storage room. I said if I just take this little corner and I have an extra drafting table — I would go on Facebook Live once a week for the adults. I would go on YouTube Live once a month for schools. Then when everything started shutting down in the middle of March, my mind was rapid-fire like everyone’s. What are we going to do? Then also, how can we help? What can I do in this moment?

I have friends who are nurses and doctors and friends who deliver bread to all of the supermarkets in Central Massachusetts. They were all essentially putting their lives at risk not knowing what was going to come of this work they were doing which was to benefit people. I was actually in Pittsburgh right before the shutdown. I was traveling the first couple weeks of March, definitely being anxious. Definitely, I was masking up and sanitizing and thinking, I don’t know if I should be here. Then the NBA shut down and Broadway shut down as I was flying home from Pittsburgh. I was staying across the street from where Mr. Rogers filmed his show. Even just driving by there, imagine, he went to work every day, and he walked through that door. That is really neat. That physical space is where Mr. Rogers would go to work every day. I had that in the back of my mind. Then I was at the airport nervously scrolling on my phone before the flight took off. A friend of mine, she pulled her kids before our town officially called it. She had a big whiteboard with the schedule that they were going to keep. It said, “Two o’clock: Art.” I said, “I could teach your kids art. You know what? That’s what I’ll do.” The neurons just fired away on that plane home from Pittsburgh.

I said it’ll be called Draw Every Day because we’re going to draw every day. Everything’s getting shut down for two weeks. We’ll just do this thing for two weeks. It’ll be done. Life will be back to normal. Done. Where I am travelling to next? Obviously, you know how that story ends. Over the weekend, we formulated, what would it be? There’d be different segments. I made little animations. I have an overhead camera, so you could see me draw. People were really counting on me. I would receive these messages of gratitude. Then, again, I felt a little bit of a responsibility, so I did it every single day for the next couple weeks and another couple weeks after that. Then I went down to two or three episodes per week. Then Labor Day hit. Summer came. I said, let me just put it on pause, take some time to take stock and reflect and recharge, and also realizing how as soon as the adrenaline leaves your body, you’re like a marionette without strings. That’s really what happened to me. I took the summer to relax. By relax, I mean stay in my yard with my kids and not go anywhere.

Zibby: That’s so relaxing.

Jarrett: So relaxing, and not have any childcare help or anything and not be able to see anyone I love. Other than that, it was a great summer.

Zibby: Dream come true.

Jarrett: Then I picked it up again in middle of August. Also realizing that with Hey, Kiddo, I have this whole other readership that’s older, so I started another web show called Origins Stories where I’m interviewing my graphic novelist friends about how they came to be. That is a show for teens and adults. Sometimes younger kids could — there’s an episode with Raina Telgemeier. That would be appropriate for everyone. I don’t want to hold back. I’ll be interviewing some other authors who have more older-skewing work. Draw Every Day is about two times a week. Origin Stories is once a week. I record it right over here. I’ll turn this around. This is a tiny little room. There are my flat files. That is where I record Origin Stories.

Zibby: Wow. Basically, it is smaller than I even thought, but it looks amazing. It’s amazing. It’s fantastic.

Jarrett: If I stood up, I’d touch the ceiling, but then you would see my sweatpants.

Zibby: That’s okay. Nobody’s standing up on this call.

Jarrett: That’s just the illusion of TV magic. I shared some behind-the-scenes photos a couple months in. People thought I was in this attic with huge windows and skylights. It’s a couple of ring lights and a microphone. I was able to do that so quickly because I had the ring light here because I had all of this stuff set up. I think we’ll all be traumatized by that pivoting for so long now. I don’t think I’ve even processed it all yet. I’m sure none of us really have, that spring. You know why? Because we’re so busy mourning every new thing that we don’t have. Now we’re in the midst of mourning Halloween and making plans for how we can safely celebrate Christmas with my in-laws and all that.

Zibby: Even the marathon is coming up here. I’m like, even the marathon’s not happening? That’s outside. I know what you mean, every milestone. I’m in my head like, oh, my gosh, if we hit March 12th again, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Are we still going to be in this state with no vaccine and no anything?

Jarrett: Every now and then Gina and I say, we miss the days of just Tiger King and new TikTok. That got us through. If there’s a Netflix executive listening, if you could please make a Tiger King: Season 2 for us by March 12th, that’ll be the only thing I’ll .

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Now what is coming next on the book front for you?

Jarrett: I have a book called Sunshine which is a follow-up to Hey, Kiddo. It’s actually not so much a follow-up as much as it’s a companion. It totally stands on its own. It’s about my time working at that camp with children with cancer. It actually fits into this book. It was originally a chapter from Hey, Kiddo. I’ll show you the page. What was once a whole chapter became just this page here in Hey, Kiddo. I needed to explain how that experience informed my motivation to meet my father. You could read Hey, Kiddo up to here, stop, read all 240-something pages of Sunshine, and then come back and read the rest here. That was one of the greatest gifts my editor gave me. When I was writing this, he said, “Don’t write this book like it’s your only chance to write about your life.” It’s true because our lives don’t unfold in a nice, neat, three-act structure. There are so many different tracks and so many things going. Even as I continue to think about life experiences that I want to write about, there were a lot of parts and things about my grandparents that just didn’t fit into the narrative. I have these two wonderful tracks where I could write these heavier books for older readers. Then I could write younger goofy stuff for younger readers as well. I have another series in the works for that Lunch Lady/Jedi Academy age as well.

Zibby: Very busy. That’s awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, or illustrators I should really say, creators?

Jarrett: One of the greatest gifts my grandfather gave me, too, was my work ethic. He grew up during the Great Depression. That’s something he always instilled in all of his kids, including me, that hard work is so important. It really doesn’t matter what art college you go to, if you even go to college for art. It’s just about your craft. You have to work on your craft. It’s a constant journey in growth. I could look at any of these books and point out everything that I would want to change about every single one of them, but I can’t. They’re printed. It’s done. I can only take that knowledge into my next projects.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I had such a great time talking to you today, especially our little pre-chat commiserating on our dogs’ habits and whatever else. You’re really inspiring. It’s amazing. I love all the good you’re doing in the world and the entertainment mixed with emotion. It’s really fantastic. I’m glad our paths have crossed in this world.

Jarrett: I am too, Zibby. Thank you. I appreciate you. Thank you for all you’re doing as well to throw a spotlight on books that you love. Thank you.

Zibby: No problem. Have a good day.

Jarrett: Have a good day. I’ll see you soon, Zibby. Thank you. Be well.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka, STAR WARS: JEDI ACADEMY