The popular author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka has explored a lot of terrain in his inventive stories for young readers. There’s “Punk Farm” where the livestock has hidden musical talents and the school where the “Lunch Lady” serves sloppy joe’s and justice. But with his latest book, a graphic memoir, Mr. Krosoczka, 40, has mined his childhood to tell a story that is very much relevant today amid the opioid epidemic plaguing the country.
“Hey, Kiddo,” which arrives in stores on Oct. 9, is about being raised by his grandparents in Worcester, Mass., because Mr. Krosoczka did not know his father, and his mother was battling a heroin addiction that eventually claimed her life. It is a story that the author has seen resonate with audiences at schools around the country. “There are so many kids out there whose parents do terrible things,” he said during a telephone interview while on a family vacation away from their home in western Massachusetts. “It’s important for kids to know that it doesn’t make them a bad person.”
The book, published by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, is aimed at a young adult audience and may sound like heavy reading, but the story is a true reflection of the seesaw of life: There are moments of hardship and conflict, but also scenes of joy. The prelude introduces us to Joseph (Joe), Mr. Krosoczka’s grandfather, who is instructing young Jarrett on a coming-of-age ritual.
“You know why I’m teaching you to drive in a cemetery, right?” he asks. “Because everyone is already dead,” they answer jointly (Joe with a smile; Jarrett with a slight eye roll).
It is one of the many examples of his grandfather’s rakish sense of humor. These pages also set up the ethereal look of the graphic novel: The word balloons are borderless, and the scenes are presented in grayscale and burnt orange (a testament to the bold pocket squares his grandfather wore to give his outfits a burst of color).
Two of the book’s other central characters, his grandmother, Shirley (Shirl), and his mother, Leslie, are introduced in the opening chapter. There is no time wasted before the tension between them emerges. In one scene, when Leslie finds herself pregnant and unwed, Shirl unleashes a torrent of terrible names at her — though they give way to sweet baby talk, a page later, when Jarrett is born.
Mr. Krosoczka lived with his mother for a couple of his formative years, but the good memories — the Charlie Brown bath toys, the Franken Berry cereal, the Halloween costumes — are overpowered by harsh realities. There is the beginning of Leslie’s heroin use, a shoplifting spree and unfamiliar men, two of whom she abets in hiding the evidence of a murder. It is this last incident that allows Joe to obtain legal custody of Jarrett. (Leslie relents only if Shirley’s name is omitted in the court documents.)
The genesis of “Hey, Kiddo” dates back to when Mr. Krosoczka was around 21 years old. “It was right around the time I had my first book contract for a picture book,” he said. But over the years, every time he set out to work on this personal story, he hesitated. “I would get caught up and wonder and worry what people would think.” The concern involved the potential reactions from two audiences: The family members depicted and the fans who know him for his more gentle work.
While critical reaction has been favorable — “Hey, Kiddo” is on the National Book Awards Longlist for young adult literature — being embraced by the general public is not guaranteed. Just two years ago, when “The Seventh Wish,” a middle-school novel by Kate Messner about a family dealing with addiction, came out, the author found herself disinvited from speaking at a school in Vermont.
“They decided the book might raise questions they were not prepared to talk about,” Ms. Messner recalled recently. “I was devastated. I knew that school was in a district where families had been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. It was a school where many kids might have seen themselves in that story.”
Since then, the tide has turned and she has seen a rise in requests to speak at schools and community events. “We only have to look at the statistics to know how many families are effected by the opioid epidemic,” she said. The chance to have a dialogue is important. “You can’t solve a problem that no one is talking about.”
Mr. Krosoczka is a firm believer in transparency and he attributes that to what helped his fortuitous TED Talk at Hampshire College in October 2012. He was a last-minute substitute and had only four hours to prepare.
His wife, Gina, suggested that he discuss what he overcame from his childhood. As he practiced his opening, he said his mother was a drug addict. His wife intervened again: “Your mother was a heroin addict and you should say as much.” Mentioning that detail made a difference, he said. “There is such an array of things that could mean drug user, but when you say heroin user, you know that this is a really intense, terrible narcotic that has to be injected,” Mr. Krosoczka said. “You know how dire the situation is.”
His talk went viral (it has over 932,000 views), but his mother is mentioned only fleetingly; first drafts of “Hey, Kiddo” were similar. “I noticed there was this buffer,” said David Levithan, the book’s editor and a longtime friend of Mr. Krosoczka. “He wanted to write about his family without really writing about his mother.” Their friendship allowed Mr. Levithan to push. “I was able to say you’re dodging. You call her Leslie, but she is your mother. This book is about your mother. That’s the heart of the story,” he said.
An editorial letter outlining what was needed for the book was a breakthrough. “He wasn’t on the spot. I wasn’t on the phone with him. He could read it and digest it,” Mr. Levithan recalled. “Immediately, the conversations were much more honest.”
Mr. Krosoczka agreed: “Somebody who didn’t know me as well probably wouldn’t have been able to guide me to create the book that it became.”
“Hey, Kiddo” is a testament to the whole family and abounds with letters and drawings, his own and that of Leslie’s, who always encouraged his artistic talent. The act of preservation was instilled by his grandfather, who would give him Tupperware each year to store mementos.
Mr. Krosoczka’s meeting with his father, Richard Hennessy, comes in slow steps. He finds out his first and last name on separate occasions. Later, an apologetic letter arrives from Mr. Hennessy. Mr. Krosoczka withholds it from his grandparents, but eventually tells them and writes back. The follow-up response includes a photograph that allows him to see his father for the first time — and a brother and sister.
As he did for the family members included in the memoir, Mr. Krosoczka shared an advance copy with his father. “I told him, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way but you’re not in it that much because it’s about my childhood.’” The men debated whether to use his real name, but Mr. Hennessy said he was proud of his son and wanted to be included.
Leslie died on March 23, 2017, while Mr. Krosoczka was still revising the book. The obituary made clear that she died of an overdose. Mr. Krosoczka believes she wanted to help people learn from her mistakes. “I think my mother was a good person who made terrible decisions,” he said.
Mr. Krosoczka recounted one more story that was similar in vein to the cemetery joke that opens his memoir. “I’ve learned that dark sense of humor that will also get you through anything in life,” he explained. His mother was cremated and he wondered about the logistics: What would the ashes be contained in? Would they be heavy? He was anxious and sweaty when he visited the funeral director’s office. Then he noticed, next to the box containing his mother’s ashes, four or five of his “Lunch Lady” books. The son of an employee was a huge fan and was hoping for an autograph.
Mr. Krosoczka was at first taken back. But “my second thought was, well, at least my mother gets to come to one last book signing. She was always there, even if our relationship wasn’t great, she’d turn up.”