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'Sunshine' centers on a life-changing summer for author Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Copyright © 2023 by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.
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Graphix/Scholastic Inc.

For children and young adults, summer camps, particularly overnight ones, offer a chance to start fresh.

Living beyond usual routines and rhythms — away from school and family, out in nature, and bunking close to others, often initially strangers — engenders plenty of opportunity for self-discovery. For some, these breaks from everyday life carry even more meaning.

/ Graphix/Scholastic Inc.
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Graphix/Scholastic Inc.

Children's writer and illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka's second graphic memoir, Sunshine, tracks a single week at summer camp when he was 16 years old and working as a counselor for children living with serious illnesses, and their families. Best known for Lunch Lady — a cheeky, hilarious, and popular graphic novel series for kids, of Dogman ilk, about an undercover spy who also serves school lunch — Krosoczka first set out to tell his own story in Hey, Kiddo. A National Book Award finalist, this 2018 graphic memoir describes his childhood and teenage years in Worcester, Mass., where he was raised by his grandparents while his heroin-addicted mother mostly communicated via phone calls, letters, and drawings — as she was often in jail or halfway housing. His birth father stayed completely out of the picture.

Though Krosoczka's grandparents, as he recalls them, were not perfect, they were loving, steadfast, and generous caregivers, supporting his passion by enrolling him in local classes at the Worcester Art Museum and purchasing him a drafting table for his 14 birthday. Hey, Kiddo is a book mainly focused on familial and professional starts, and in it readers are given a passing glimpse, just several pages long, of a summer in high school of monumental change. In this small stretch of time, young Jarrett got his driver's license, received an unexpected first letter from his father, prepared to apply to his dream college, RISD, and volunteered at Camp Sunshine. That one-week experience, summed up in a single line — "it totally changed my life" — is the central focus of this latest, moving memoir.

Aimed at young adult readers though likely gratifying for all ages, Sunshine is earnestly told, rendered as it is in Krosoczka's steady lines and delicate washes. Some of his visuals, especially the larger, silent images, could easily pass for small paintings. Composed of eight chapters, the small volume of comics follows our narrator from his entry as a volunteer into this unknown world to its impactful aftermath. As the author/illustrator explains in his introduction, this was not a sad endeavor, as so many people told him they would have expected it to be. Instead it was life-affirming. "The kids I met weren't dying — they were living," he explains. "Living life to its fullest."

Krosoczka, as the "geeky kid who could draw," and five of his classmates, a motley crew, have no idea what to expect as new volunteers. Each is given an assignment and reminded that, first and foremost, their jobs are to take care of others. "Make sure families eat first and always have what they need," a chipper head counselor, "Pappa Frank," tells them. Most of the staff are older than the small group of high schoolers of which Krosoczka is part. He learns some of their backgrounds later, like Frank's admission that he, too, had cancer as a teen.

Copyright © 2023 by Jarrett J. Krosoczka / Graphix/Scholastic Inc.
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Graphix/Scholastic Inc.

Over the course of his stay, Jarrett meets and helps out with a vivacious family of four — a mom and three kids, including Eric, the youngest, who has just finished up a round of chemotherapy as treatment for leukemia. Its not only the sweet and energetic Eric himself that Jarrett connects with, but Eric's older brother and sister, Jason and Mary, too. Jarrett is also assigned to Diego, a 13-year-old with brain cancer that has already affected his mobility and cognitive skills. At first a reluctant participant, Diego ultimately connects with Jarrett over drawings of superheroes and other popular comics figures.

Much of Krosoczka's memory of that week seems to have been mobilized by footage he saved from a camcorder he had taken along with him to document the week. Towards the end of the book and in an author's note following, he testifies to the continued investment he has had in many of the lives he first encountered there. The moral of the story — "Life can be hard and difficult, but it is also short," as he writes in his author's note — is no less powerful for its predictability. Here as elsewhere, Krosoczka has a talent for uncovering the bountifulness and grace that can emerge from harsh, and otherwise quotidian, realities. His is, indeed, an art of living live to the fullest.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tahneer Oksman
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