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Mass. children's writer flourishes after setbacks

By Steve Pfarrer
Daily Hampshire Gazette / February 5, 2012
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NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Back in 2001 Jarrett Krosoczka was visiting his old elementary school in Worcester to talk to students about his first book, "Good Night, Monkey Boy," which had just been published. While he was there, he ran into the school's longtime "lunch lady," Jean Cargilia, who started chatting about her grandchildren.

"I was like, Wait a minute, you leave the cafeteria? You have a life outside this?" Krosoczka says. "Even at 23, I'd never thought of that.

"I had this sudden vision of her as this matriarch of a large family, instead of just this woman who'd been serving food in the school cafeteria when I was 7 years old," says Krosoczka, a children's book author and illustrator who lives in Florence.

"After that, I started thinking about the secret lives of lunch ladies and what they would do."

That chance encounter led to Krosoczka's signature series: comic graphic novels about a school cafeteria worker who's secretly a crime fighter, taking on rogue librarians, evil cyborg substitute teachers and a visiting children's author with his own sinister agenda. The seventh "Lunch Lady" book will be released in March.

The young readers who pick the Children's Choices Book Awards voted the "Lunch Lady" series the best third- and fourth-grade books of 2010 and 2011. And Publisher's Weekly had this to say: "Krosoczka's inventive visual details, spot-on characterizations and grade-school humor make this a standout graphic-novel series."

Hollywood has taken notice, too: Universal Pictures is developing a live-action "Lunch Lady" movie slated to star "Parks and Recreation's" Amy Poehler.

All told, Krosoczka, a boyish-looking 34, has already published 16 titles, including 10 picture books, in less than a dozen years in the business, winning praise from critics at The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Newsweek, among others.

If he seems like a happy guy -- and he is -- it's because he's making a living doing what he most enjoyed as a kid: telling stories with words and pictures.

"Here's my commute," Krosoczka says as he walks about 50 feet from his home to a former one-car garage that he has converted to a studio. "Not bad, huh?"

The studio is small and cozy -- and free of the distractions in his house, pleasant though they are.

Krosoczka and his wife, Gina, moved to the Valley five years ago in search of a good place to raise a family. The couple now have two children, 3-year-old Zoe and 7-week-old Lucy. And they're thrilled, they say, to be living in a town with a community feel and a strong artistic vibe.

Krosoczka's own start in life was rough. His mother, who was single, had substance abuse problems, and he was raised by his grandparents. As a child, he saw his mother periodically, but much of his contact with her came through letters they exchanged while she was in jail. Sometimes she would include drawings she'd done, and he'd do the same.

Krosoczka's grandparents, Joseph and Shirley Krosoczka, encouraged his interest in art. By the time he was in elementary school he was writing and illustrating his own books, inspired by Saturday-morning cartoons and comics. Sometimes his grandfather would draw along with him.

When Krosoczka was in sixth grade and funding for art was slashed in the Worcester public schools, his grandparents signed him up for lessons at the Worcester Art Museum. A class on picture book art and story writing while he was in high school got him thinking about children's books.

He enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and graduated with a degree in illustration in 1999.

During his summers off from college Krosoczka worked at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Conn. Started by actor Paul Newman in 1988, the camp serves children with serious illnesses and disabilities. The experience affected him deeply, Krosoczka says.

Up until then, he says, his drawings had "mostly been violent monsters with knives and blood -- typical teenage angst material. Seeing the things that these kids contended with changed my thinking."

His thinking was also influenced by thoughts of his mother. "I was pretty determined early on not to allow those demons that had taken her to take me."

By the time he'd graduated from RISD, Krosoczka had accumulated "a whole pocketful" of rejection letters from publishing houses. In the fall of 1999, when he was living in Boston and teaching part time at a community art center, he got some advice from a fellow RISD grad: Instead of sending samples of his work to the art directors of publishing companies, as he'd been doing, he should contact the editors.

Krosoczka headed to the post office with a new batch of pitch letters. Within days he heard back from an editor at Random House, who invited him to New York to show off his material. Soon after that, he had a contract from the company's children's book imprint, Knopf Books for Young Readers. Knopf has since published all but two of his 16 books.

Krosoczka's picture books explore themes children can identify with: the ups and downs of friendship, feeling out of place at school, the struggle for independence versus the security of home, all told with humor.

In "Baghead," a boy named Josh irks his parents and sets tongues wagging at his elementary school when he wears a brown paper bag over his head in class one day -- to conceal the terrible haircut he's given himself.

And in one of the "Lunch Lady" books, a group of school librarians threatens to destroy all video games because kids aren't reading enough -- until the Lunch Lady and three young students discover the plot.

"I love this idea of adults having all these secret agendas that kids suspect and are trying to figure out," says Krosoczka.

In the studio behind his house, mementoes from his childhood are scattered about on desks and tables: a Bart Simpson doll, another of Charlie Brown, a set of metal robots. There's a bookcase filled with Krosoczka's books, including Japanese, French and Spanish translations.

Artwork for his next "Lunch Lady" book is taped to a wall above his drawing table. Krosoczka is also developing a series of chapter books for older readers, "Platypus Police Squad," about the adventures of two web-footed duck-billed detectives.

Meanwhile, his picture book "Punk Farm," about barnyard animals who play in a rock band at night after Farmer Joe has gone to bed, has also caught the attention of Hollywood. After some fits and starts, MGM has taken on the project, which is expected to be helmed by veteran "Simpsons" director David Silverman.

And that, Krosoczka says, "is mind-boggling. I mean, I have drawings of Bart Simpson all over my old notebooks."

If his life had a tough start, Krosoczka says, "There's definitely been a happy ending."

He is back in touch with his mother and with his biological father, whom he first met when he was 17. He says he has a great relationship with both parents, as well as his two half-siblings from his father's subsequent marriage.

He still feels his grandfather's influence, Krosoczka says. "He taught me to give my all, and then some." He's auctioned off artwork to create a scholarship fund at the Worcester Art Museum in honor of both grandparents Shirley and Joseph Krosoczka died in 2007 and 2010, respectively -- so children can attend art classes there.

For the last three years Krosoczka and his wife have also teamed up with WRSI-FM The River to create "The Meltdown," a day featuring children's book authors, musicians and booksellers. This year's event is scheduled for March 31 at Northampton's JFK Middle School.

While Krosoczka still visits schools across the country to talk with children about how he became a writer, these days he doesn't want to be away from his family for too long, so he's doing more virtual visits to classrooms via his computer. He also keeps in touch with his young fans through his website, http://www.studiojjk.com, blogging and posting videos about his books and travels.

Meanwhile, his characters continue to pick up new fans.

Last fall a trick or treater showed up at his door dressed like the Lunch Lady. "When something like that happens," Krosoczka says, "I guess you can say, I've made it' as a children's book writer."

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