A transformative experience: In his new graphic memoir, Jarrett Krosoczka looks back on the life lessons he learned as a camp counselor


Staff Writer

Published: 03-31-2023 8:32 PM

Five years ago, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, already an acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator, took his career to the next level with “Hey, Kiddo,” a graphic novel/memoir in which he shared poignant and often painful details from his childhood and adolescence — in particular, being raised by his grandparents because his mother struggled with addiction and his father was not in the picture.

Among numerous honors, “Hey, Kiddo” was nominated for a National Book Award, and it also won Krosoczka, of Florence, an expanded audience, as it was his first book for older readers. But there was one part of his story — an important chapter, he says — that didn’t make it into print.

With “Sunshine: How One Camp Taught Me About Life, Death, and Hope,” his new graphic novel/memoir, Krosoczka has revisited that part of his story, one he says changed the trajectory of his life.

The book, by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, will be published April 18, the same day that a live reading and multimedia presentation for “Sunshine” will be staged at Northampton’s Academy of Music.

In this new work, Krosoczka relates his experience as a high school student working at a Maine camp for kids and young teens with life-threatening illnesses, predominantly cancer. The camp also hosted the siblings of many of those children, so it was not strictly for kids with illnesses.

How he might relate to those struggling children caused Krosoczka some initial worry and uncertainty, he says, but in the end the experience buoyed him in a number of ways.

As a teen, he notes, he was already a serious artist and envisioned some kind of career as an illustrator and writer — but until his time at the camp, he hadn’t thought of addressing a younger audience.

“It was a switch for me, really the first time I thought, ‘Maybe I could write for kids, maybe I can really connect with them,’ ” he said in a recent phone call.

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In “Sunshine,” the teenage Krosoczka is able to break the ice with an initially withdrawn boy he’s assisting, 13-year-old Diego, by doing drawings of various action figures like Batman — and then other kids cluster round to watch: “Oh, cool!” “Wicked good!”

“Now draw Spider-Man!” says Diego.

More importantly, Krosoczka says he felt part of something bigger at Camp Sunshine, an effort by staff and volunteers like himself to let the kids feel like regular kids, to help them have fun and spend at least one week at a place where they weren’t defined by their illnesses.

And, he added, “It gave me a sense of perspective I hadn’t had before. I realized I wasn’t the only person with problems, and that some people’s problems were definitely more serious than mine.”

He was amazed at the courage and resilience of the families he got to know and how they rallied around a sick son, daughter, brother or sister.

“I was in awe of them, and I still am, especially the kids who have grown up and are now living really fulfilling lives.”

Though “Sunshine” takes place largely during one week at the Maine camp, Krosoczka says the book includes experiences he had during subsequent stints at the camp, as well as a summer during college when he worked at The Hole in Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, a program founded by the late Paul Newman for kids battling serious illness.

A fair part of “Sunshine,” in a different form, was originally part of “Hey, Kiddo,” he says, but his editor at Scholastic persuaded him to take it out, as it didn’t really fit into the first book and was making it too lengthy; only a brief mention remained in that first memoir.

“The best advice I got … while I was working on ‘Hey, Kiddo’ was ‘Don’t write this as if this is your only chance at a memoir,’” Krosoczka said. “I came to realize this was a story that really needed its own book.”

Dealing with loss

The reason? The children (and their families) he worked with remain emotional touchstones. He’s still in contact with several of them — and he still feels the loss of kids who didn’t make it, like Eric Orfao, a young boy who died a few years after Krosoczka met him at Camp Sunshine.

“I knew ‘Hey, Kiddo’ would be a fraught experience, but ‘Sunshine’ was even more difficult,” he said. “When I was doing the research and Googling obituaries, I found myself crying — a lot.”

“I’ve been to way too many funerals with small caskets,” he said.

Yet “Sunshine,” like Krosoczka’s others books, is carried forward by the author’s generous and generally optimistic nature. There’s plenty of humor young readers can relate to, like the costume of the camp mascot, a giant bear, that Krososczka and other counselors take turns wearing for certain events: It smells like farts.

Krososczka and five of his high school classmates serving as counselors trade sarcastic jibes — “What’s up, dork?” — but they also share their concerns about the children they’re caring for in ways that feel real. It’s serious but not melodramatic.

And in other scenes, some of the older campers talk openly about their health problems, siblings share their sorrow at what’s happening to a younger brother or sister, and an older staffer says he’s continued to work at the camp because he first came there as a teen with cancer — and then beat the disease.

With “Sunshine,” Krosoczka is also returning to the live readings he began with “Hey, Kiddo” in 2019 but which were then canceled by COVID-19. Along with the other hardships the pandemic imposed, like lost income from his typical school visits, Krosoczka says he felt stung by the loss of momentum he’d built up with “Hey, Kiddo.”

“I thought I’d really hit on this new way of presenting my books, and then it got completely shut down,” he said. “It was hard.” (He did produce an audiobook of “Hey, Kiddo” using multiple readers, and he’s planning one for “Sunshine” as well.)

Now, after the April 18 presentation at the Academy of Music, he’ll go on the road to present similar live events, with readers hired for each stop, in multiple cities including Houston, Austin, St. Louis and Atlanta.

The Academy show, which begins at 7 p.m., will have 10 adult and teen readers, including himself, as well as slide projections from “Sunshine” that have built-in sound effects. Among the readers will be Valley radio host Monte Belmonte.

The event is presented by High Five Books, the children’s bookstore in Florence, and it’s supported by The Garden: A Center for Grieving Children & Teens, a program of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and by the Cancer Connection, the Northampton nonprofit that serves cancer patients and their families.

Writing “Sunshine” also reinforced Krosoczka’s appreciation for his own family — his wife, Gina, and their children Zoe, Lucia, and Xavier, ages 14, 11, and 6, respectively — and the fact that they’re in good health.

As he writes in an afterword, “Revisiting the experiences found in this book reiterated an epiphany that working at camp gave me: Time here with one another is a gift that should be acknowledged and appreciated.”

Tickets for the live presentation of “Sunshine” are available at aomtheatre.com; the price includes a paperback copy of the book.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.