As National Bullying Prevention Month winds down, author/illustrator/syndicated cartoonist Jerry Craft is just getting started on his own bully awareness campaign. Craft, best known for his Mama’s Boyz comic strip and series of books, has written a book for kids that tackles the issue of bullying–from the bully’s perspective, The Offenders: Saving The World While Serving Detention!
“I’ve done a ton of school and library visits over the past seven years and the bullying theme is something that always seems to come up. I also was a member of the parents association of my sons’ school and went to a few lectures on the topic. During one of the meetings, a woman stood up and said that the parents who should be there, were not,” explains Craft, whose work has been published in various national outlets. “That gave me the idea of doing a book from the bully’s perspective. I think a lot of kids don’t think that actions have the impact that they do. I wanted to help point that out to them.”
In the 228-page book, which is for middle school kids, a freak accident gives five middle school bullies super powers. But these are unlike any super powers—these bullies take on the characteristics of the kids who they bully. Talk about role reversal. The bottom line: the former bullies learn a valuable lesson of compassion.
For this book, Craft enlisted his two teen sons—Jaylen and Aren Craft. “When I started the book, my son Jaylen was 13 and Aren was 11 (now they’re 15 and 13),” says Craft. “I’m a night owl so most of my writing was done while they were asleep or at school. So when they came home I started reading them my draft and asking for their feedback. At some point, their comments went from, ‘It’s great, Dad’ to ‘I don’t think that character would say that. He should say this instead.’ And they were right! Who knows more about how kids that age talk than kids themselves? I really relied on them for things like language, fashion, video games and music. The last thing I wanted to do was have my characters playing some game like Space Invaders or Pac Man.”
Once his sons got interested, they wanted to get more involved. “Then, the more they did, the more they wanted to do, so before you know it, they were co-authoring the book,” says Craft. The collaboration gave more authenticity to the book. “I had a mom read the book recently and tell me that it sounded like her kids talking,” Craft points out.
Aren and Jaylen have become committed to the prevention of bullying. “You have to get the message to the kids. Teachers and parents can always help, but it’s really about getting kids to set good examples for each other. A friend of mine said he was being bullied by another friend of mine, so I went and talked to him. He had no idea that the other kid felt he was a bully, so he went and apologized,” said Aren.
Adds Jaylen, “A lot of times you have bullies who are being bullied at home by a sibling or other times they don’t fit in at school so they take it out on other kids without even realizing they are bullies. If you’re the bystander, you have to step in because if you don’t maybe no one else will either. So even if you’re afraid to do it yourself, you can always go and tell someone.”
The media—and teachers– have jumped on the book. Aren was interviewed on HuffPost Live, and got to meet Drew Pearce, the writer of the film Iron Man 3. “Pearce loved the book and gave us a blurb for our cover. We’ve also done four TV interviews so far, (one of them was live!), with more lined up. But the best response has been from our readers. Parents, teachers and kids, who have really fallen in love with the characters, are already asking for the sequel,” says Craft. “We even recently spoke to PACER, the organization that founded National Bullying Prevention Month, and they are very excited about collaborating on upcoming projects.”
Craft’s research for the book revealed some surprising revelations about contemporary bullying. “One of the things is that bullying has changed so much over the years. It’s not the typical kid who you used to see on TV who picked on kids who were smaller. Now it also includes kids from groups posting comments on Facebook, texting, etc,” says Craft. “The other surprising fact is the amount of kids who are the targets of bullying. We included a few stats in the book such as, ‘each day, more than 160,000 kids skip school for fear of being bullied,’ to show people that it has reached epidemic proportions.”
As he has with his other books, Craft published The Offenders through his Mama’s Boyz, Inc. “I try to stay away from the term ‘self published,’ because in some circles it has the connotation of meaning unprofessional. I am an independent publisher. I printed my first book back in 1997…My ‘Mama’s Boyz’ comic strip has been distributed by King Features Syndicated since 1995. And most recently I was the editorial director of the Sports Illustrated for Kids website. I use all that I’ve learned from these other jobs to make my books look as professional as possible. I even got it grade leveled and aligned with the Common Core State Standard Reading Literature Strand,” says Craft.
Publishing through his own company gives Craft a certain amount of creative freedom. “I wanted to publish this book for a variety of reasons. One is that I wanted to use a really diverse cast of characters. We put a lot of work into developing them. One of the characters I’m most proud of is named Dexter Diaz, who is Puerto Rican. I reached out to a lot of my Latino friends to make sure that he and his family would come across as being authentic. So we really worked hard to stay away from the usual names, foods, etc. And I think we did a really good job with that,” explains Craft.
“The other reason I wanted to publish this book myself is that I think kids today are a lot more sophisticated than some of the mainstream publishers give them credit for,” continues Craft. “It’s amazing what I see my kids and their friends doing. So I wanted to speak to them on a different level.”
The Offenders will be published in January.