After publishing his first book, Good Night, Monkey Boy, author and illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka returned to his old elementary school in Worcester, Massachusetts to talk to students about writing, illustrating, and publishing books. While walking the halls at Gates Lane School, he says he ran into the “beloved lunch lady of my youth.” Her name was Jean Cariglia. It was 2001 and he hadn’t seen her in decades.
“At first, she mistook me for my uncle, who is 20 years older than I,” Krosoczka says. “In our conversation, she talked about how proud she was of her grandchildren. That very fact, that the school chef would have this whole other life that I didn’t know about, triggered my imagination: What would the lunch staff be doing when they weren’t serving food? Naturally, they would be fighting crime!”
That was the beginning of what would become an acclaimed and popular series of 10 graphic novels about two school cafeteria workers who serve hungry students by day and fight crime by night. Krosoczka recently spoke with NEA Today about his two unlikely superheroes, Lunch Lady and Betty, and an event he is launching this year with Random House and the School Nutrition Association: School Lunch Superhero Day. Celebrated around School Nutrition Employee Week, School Lunch Superhero Day will be staged on May 3, Cariglia’s birthday. She died in 2011.
Krosoczka, who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters, is also known for Baghead, Punk Farm, Ollie The Purple Elephant and other books.
How would you describe the Lunch Lady and her trusty assistant, Betty?
Lunch Lady and Betty are like James Bond and Q, Batman and Robin, Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 (from the 1960s television series, Get Smart). They place equal importance on saving the world as they do serving delicious meals to their students. Betty designs spy gadgets for Lunch Lady that are fashioned from items found around the cafeteria, like the Spork-phone, Spatu-copter and Fish Stick Nun chucks.
What grade level or age range are your Lunch Lady books geared toward?
I never write with a specific age in mind. And I’m grateful that ages aren’t printed on the books, because kids learn at different speeds. My publisher markets the series towards 7 to 11 year olds and the books have twice won the Third to Fourth Grade Book of the Year in the Children’s Choice Book Awards, but I have met with first-grade classrooms who have read the books and recently met the mother of a 12-year-old who was so happy that the Lunch Lady books hooked her son onto reading.
What is your objective for School Lunch Superhero Day?
I have a few objectives for School Lunch Superhero Day. One, and the most obvious, is to give positive reinforcement to the women and men who work tirelessly in our nation’s school cafeterias. They are responsible for feeding 32 million students every single day. That is a staggeringly large number of nourished minds ready to learn. Another objective is to encourage good citizenship within young people. It’s important that they learn to give thanks and gratitude for the work that is being done for them, and the lunch staff can often go overlooked. I also want to inspire creativity. I love it when kids invent their own Lunch Lady gadgets and write their own comics based on the series. I’m excited to see the creative ways people will celebrate and have already been humbled by the ideas folks have shared over social media. Above all, I want everybody to have a ton of fun with this.
I have a lot of resources available at the official School Lunch Superhero Day website. People can celebrate by simply writing thank you cards or they can go all out and decorate the cafeteria with large banners. At a school in Naples, Florida, the lunch staff have been invited to be guests on the morning news program. In another school, the principal ordered balloons and flowers for the lunch staff, and in another school all of the students and staff will be wearing yellow and black (colors featured in the book) to honor their lunch staff. It’s wild to see all of the ideas that are flowing in.
Of the nine books that are part of the Lunch Lady series, which is your favorite and why?
Just like a proud parent, I couldn’t choose one kid over the other. There will be a 10th book that ties them all together, so I look at the series as one grand adventure.
When stirred up, Lunch Lady curses by using vegetable words such as, “cauliflower” and “sweet potato.”
Cursing with vegetables is more fun than you can imagine. Try yelling “cauliflower” the next time you stub your toe and you’ll see what I mean. Like all good superheroes, Lunch Lady needed a catch phrase and everything in her life goes back to the school kitchen.
Why did you decide to discontinue the series?
The 10th book will be the final book—for now. I’m not opposed to someday returning to the series, and down the road I hope that I do. But the 10th book will be like an ice bow on top of a set of books, it really brings everything together nicely. I’ve been thinking about the Lunch Lady series in one form or another since 2001 and for the past seven years I’ve been heavily involved with the production of the books. As you can imagine, it’s been very demanding and I have a lot of other creative projects in the works. I have a chapter book series debuting in May with Platypus Police Squad: The Frog Who Croaked. I’ll have a new picture book published in the spring of 2014, Peanut Butter and Jellyfish. I have also been working on a memoir that would be written as a graphic novel. For those that have seen my TED Talk (titled, How a Boy Became an Artist, in which he honors many of the teachers who helped him succeed), it will focus on a lot of that content, so this will be a young adult book.