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Interview: Jerry Craft, Creator of Mama’s Boyz

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My interview today is with Mama’s Boyz creator Jerry Craft who was born in the Washington Heights section of New York City. He won his first art contest in third grade and remembers as a youth creating comic strip versions of movies he saw to send to his brother who was a marine stationed in Japan.

He has worked on various comics and graphic novels including six issues of Sweet 16 for Marvel Comics, four issues of New Kids on the Block, three Mama’s Boyz graphic novels/anthologies as well as illustrations for seven children’s books. He has also had his work in two Chicken Soup for the Soul books as well as the newly released Moving Diversity Forward published by the American Bar Association.

The first comic he worked on was with Barbara Slate who created the “Sweet 16” series. She taught him a lot of what he knows today.

In 2006 he decided that it was time to work on his own series. He left his job as an editorial director of Sports Illustrated for Kids and started his Mama’s Boyz series.

List of awards:

  • Three African American Literary Awards for Best Comic Strip
  • Profile Magazine Award of Excellence (2009)
  • 2007 “Conversation Starter Award” from the DC Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy
  • Two ADA Outstanding Supporter Awards from the American Diabetes Association
  • National Cartoonists Society Award Nominee (2000)
  • Glyph Award Nominee

First let me thank you for taking time to do this interview. You have a very vibrant and fun illustration style. Where did the style for Mama’s Boyz come from?

It actually was a long time in the making. For years I didn’t have a style of my own because I always had to match someone else’s style. Then it just evolved over time. The way the characters look in my first book are really different than how they look now.

Can you describe for us your start to finish process when working on a comic strip?

I start with the idea, which usually just pops into my head as I’m going about my day. I never sit down to actually think of ideas. Then I do a rough sketch where I work out the dialogue and what pictures I’m going to draw. Then I do my final version on a nicer grade of paper. Finally, I scan it and color it in Photoshop. Then I email it each week to newspapers around the country. And I’m always looking for new clients.

What is your hope for the Mama’s Boyz series and are you working on starting any new series?

I’m currently starting my fourth Mama’s Boyz book. So far each one has been better and more popular than the last. In fact, Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture was written up in the School Library Journal. That was a really big deal for me. I’d love to eventually see it animated, either on TV or for a DVD, but that may still be a while for that to happen.

 

Tell us about Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture.

Well I used the basic premise of A Christmas Carol and had Yusuf, who is 16 years old, be visited by four phantoms. But these are all versions of how he COULD turn out if he doesn’t start to see his life as “The Big Picture.” One version has a weight problem because he eats poorly and doesn’t exercise (too much Xbox). The next version is a seventy year old who still wears his pants hanging off his butt and has multiple tattoos. Next is a version who tells him about the importance of family, and the last is how he could turn out if he drops out of school.

I like the old Fat Albert style of using humor to teach positive life lessons.  I just want to show kids from 7-19 that the decisions they make today can affect them for the rest of their lives. That tattoo that you get on your face not ain’t gonna be so cute when you’re 80!

I think that’s great and one of the reasons the characters of Mama’s Boyz has been featured as spokes characters for various organizations. Can you tell us where they have been featured and what it meant for you?

I’ve used my characters to teach kids about childhood obesity for the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition; to educate them about diabetes for the American Diabetes Association; and even in conjunction with the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

I love to be able to use my characters to do more than just make folks laugh. Plus it encourages even reluctant readers to read. That’s why I’ve had so many schools and libraries ordering my books. I even did work with Donate Life! America to educate people about organ and tissue donation.

Along with producing your comic strips you also illustrate books for others. How has the experience been for you?

I LOVE doing children’s books. It seems as if my niche is becoming someone who works directly with authors to help them produce their books. I’m about to start my eighth children’s book. I work directly with the author and do all of the illustrations, some editing, the coloring… and even the layout. So I’m a one-stop shop. All I need is the story and I’ll give you back a finished book that’s ready to be sent to the printer.

It’s been great working directly with the authors. Especially when they see their book for the first time. For some of them, it’s been a lifelong dream. I’ve seen smiles, I’ve seen tears of joy… it’s awesome to be a part of it all. A few, like Lori Nelson (Hillary’s Big Business Adventure), have hired me to do a second book. And Sabrina Carter has come back for thirds (Please Don’t Yell at We!; My Hair is Curly; Please Won’t You Listen to Me?) I may be stuck with her for the rest of my life!

I like the fact that these books have all been near and dear to their hearts. Margo Candelario wrote a book about her three daughters dealing with the loss of their dad called Looking to the Clouds for Daddy. It’s a great book for any kid who has lost a loved one. But a big publisher may never take a chance on a book like that since it probably won’t sell a million copies. But it’s an important book.

And Dr. Courtney Davis wanted to teach people about all of the great things about where she lives with A is for Anacostia, a really cool community outside of Washington, DC.

What has been your favorite project to work on?

It’s really hard to pick one since I love to draw and I don’t take on any projects that I don’t like and won’t be proud to show to my own kids. I have two sons who act as my editors. I also have fun doing Flash animation, check out Confronting the Black Superheroes of My Childhood and The Randy Moss Driving School on YouTube.

You have been working as an illustrator for years, has the new technology affected how you work on new projects?

Definitely. The cartoons I just mentioned are done in Flash. I drew all of the artwork directly on the computer as opposed to on paper, then scanning it. And with the Looking to the Clouds for Daddy book, I used photographs along with my illustrations. Plus I can do an entire book on my own, without help from anyway. That’s great!

Are you currently working on any projects that we can look forward to?

I just finished writing two novels aimed at the middle grade/young adult market. And these are full chapter books. The one that I did on my own is over 50,000 words. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. The second was written by networking superstar George Fraser (frasernet.com) and his sister Emma about their lives growing up in the foster care system. Both have just been completed so I’m in the process of shopping for either an agent, or submitting directly to a publisher. So I’ll take any advice that your audience would like to offer.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Well the biggest thing is that people like me can not exist without support. It’s not enough to say “keep up the good work.” All of the money that I make goes back into creating new products. I’d eventually like to have 10 Mama’s Boyz books! So it’s important to keep us in mind when shopping for birthdays and the holidays, or just in general. And if you like it, don’t keep it a secret, ask your friends to by them of their kids. And as people of color, we need to stop feeling nervous about giving books about “us” to kids outside of our race. People give my kids books based on white characters all the time without thinking twice. But it almost never works in reverse. But not only does it help the authors, but it helps kids see us as regular people and not always just as historical figures such as Rosa Parks or Dr Martin Luther King, jr. The more they read about just regular kids, the easier it is for them to expand how they look at people who are different than they are.

Where can people find out more information about you and your work?

You can follow me everywhere except around my house. On Facebook I’m Jerry Craft, same for Twitter. And my website is mamasboyz.com.  I even have a monthly newsletter you can sign up for.

You can also reach me directly via email at jerrycraft@aol.com

Thanks for your support!!!

And thank you Jerry for taking time to share with us about your projects.

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