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Secrets of the School Lunch Superheroes

 | May 02, 2013
IN OTHER WORDS
BY JARRETT KROSOCZKA
May 2, 2013
 
When I set out to write the Lunch Lady series of graphic novels, I had one simple goal in mind—to draw cartoons of a lunch lady fighting off robots with fish sticks. I wasn’t expecting to celebrate school lunch employees nationwide or to help awaken a generation of dormant readers. But while my original goals weren’t altruistic, I have come to embrace the responsibilities that the series has bestowed upon me.

First, and the most obvious, would be the “lunch ladies” that I am championing. The series itself was inspired by a chance encounter I had with Jeanne Cariglia, the woman who ran the cafeteria at my old elementary school. It was 2001 and I had returned to Gates Lane School in Worcester, Massachusetts, to talk to the students about my first published book, GOOD NIGHT, MONKEY BOY. While setting up my slide projector in the cafetorium, I noticed Jeanne was still working at the school and I struck up a conversation with her. When she told me about her grandchildren, I was bowled over. She had a family?! She didn’t live in the kitchen with the spatulas?! Even at 23, I had never thought about what would happen after the last lunch of the day was served. I set out to write a book that would detail the secret lives of school lunch employees, and the Lunch Lady series was born.

From left: Jeanne, Betty, and Jarrett
The series was launched in 2009 with LUNCH LADY AND THE CYBORG SUBSTITUTE and LUNCH LADY AND THE LEAGUE OF LIBRARIANS. I celebrated at the Worcester Public Library and had a packed house, with Jeanne and her old cafeteria cohort Betty front and center. I acknowledged their presence and presented them with framed drawings of the characters, along with autographed books. The crowd gave the women a thunderous round of applause. Both Jeanne and Betty loved the evening, relishing in the attention, and even autographed some books themselves.

In the time since the Lunch Lady graphic novels were first published, I've crisscrossed the country visiting schools to give lectures on writing and creativity. And with every school I visit, I learn about the school’s lunch staff and often stop by the cafeteria to shake hands with the women and men who work so hard to feed our nation’s school children. I love having the opportunity to hear how the series has shifted the way kids interact with their school’s lunch staff. Is there really a crime-fighting operation going on behind that sneeze guard?

In late 2011, I received some terrible news. Jeanne Cariglia had passed away. I attended her wake and could not believe what I saw there. Next to her casket were her childhood portrait and the drawing I had given her at the library two years prior. I spoke with her widower and his eyes widened as he told me about how much that gesture had meant to his wife. Jeanne was so proud of having been the inspiration for the series. She was even signing books for the nurses while in hospice.

I still have a difficult time wrapping my mind around that experience. That drawing I gave her—it took me maybe 15 minutes to make, but it meant a great deal to somebody. It, of course, went so much deeper than the time spent; it was the thought and validation that the drawing represented.

These experiences led me to dream up School Lunch Superhero Day, a day in which kids across the country could spread similar joy to their school lunch staff. When considering a possible date for this to take place, I glanced at a bulletin board I keep in my studio. It’s filled with mementos from the Lunch Lady books, including Jeanne’s mass card. I noticed her birthday—May 3rd. It seemed so perfect to me. What school employee wouldn’t want a little boost at the end of the year?

Along with Random House Children’s Books and the School Nutrition Association, I’ve created this dedicated website where educators and parents can download resources to celebrate on May 3rd.

But just as I want to encourage good citizenship in students, I also want to inspire their creativity. Through social media, I have already heard from so many schools that are celebrating in unique ways. One school is hosting the lunch staff on their morning news program, another is surprising their school lunch employees with balloons and flowers, and yet another will be lining the school’s hallways with drawings that the children make. The possibilities are endless!

Being that this is a guest blog for the International Reading Association, I did want to take a moment to touch upon the other group that I have embraced with the Lunch Lady series—the reluctant, or dormant, reader. I hear from so many educators and parents who share that their children are reading books for the first time because of my yellow-toned books and I am so humbled by their sentiments. Had comics been a validated reading format when I was a child, I can’t even begin to imagine how much more confident a reader I would have been. When I was a kid, I read every CALVIN & HOBBES treasury, I cut out and scrapbooked the GARFIELD comic strips from the newspaper daily and, if I couldn’t get a ride to the comic book store, I would walk a mile and a half to get there. I would walk three miles to read!

I won’t be abandoning this group when I wrap up the Lunch Lady series later this year. (If you haven’t heard, the tenth Lunch Lady book will be the last, at least for some time.) Also in May, my first chapter book will publish. While PLATYPUS POLICE SQUAD: THE FROG WHO CROAKED is a much longer and more prose-heavy book, it is very heavily illustrated. In 2014, I will see the publication of my next picture book, PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLYFISH. I also have some wonderful top-secret plans in the works, and some of them involve comics.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading my books in your schools. I am, and forever will be, grateful for the hard-working educators who put my books into the hands of young readers. I look forward to seeing what kind of fun activities you might come up with for School Lunch Superhero Day. When reading and food join forces, nothing but good can come from it! And when our children’s imaginations are inspired as they develop a love of reading it is an awe-inspiring thing!

Jarrett J. Krosoczka has been passionate about storytelling through words and pictures since he was a kid. His Lunch Lady series has twice won a Children's Choice Book Award and was nominated for a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award. In the summer of 2013, Jarrett will have his chapter book debut with the publication of PLATYPUS POLICE SQUAD: THE FROG WHO CROAKED. His Punk Farm and Lunch Lady series are both currently in development as feature films. Jarrett is happily living out his childhood dream in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he resides with his wife and daughters and their pug, Ralph Macchio.

© 2013 Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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