Jarrett J. Krosoczka might be well known for his Lunch Lady series, where a dynamic lunch lady serves lunch to her students and justice to cyborgs and evil librarians. But Krosoczka is also not afraid to tackle more serious subjects, like his own tumultuous upbringing in National Book Award finalist Hey, Kiddo: A Graphic Novel. He once again tackles the foreboding subject of mortality in Sunshine: A Graphic Novel, but rather than being a bleak trip through the emotional wringer, Sunshine is actually a celebration of life.
This book details a very specific time in Krosoczka’s life: while in high school he worked as a counselor at Camp Sunshine, a summer camp for seriously ill children and their families. Along with getting to know more about his classmates that he passed in the halls, Krosoczka also gets to know kids like Eric, a Power Rangers fanatic who is a ball of energy, and Diego, a withdrawn young man who spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. Throughout the summer, he learns more about the kids attending the camp and their parents, as well as gains a new appreciation of life.
Even the title of the book is there to help people avoid misconceptions about the subject matter; the book is named Sunshine and not Shadows, or Final Curtain. It is about kids who may not have a lot of years left, but the book isn’t some maudlin slog. Rather, there are many moments in this book that demonstrate Krosoczka’s ability to focus on the small moments of joy that occur, from Diego’s ride in a paddle boat to Krosoczka’s small taste of celebrity as the camp’s favorite artist. Rather than blithely glossing over these kids’ illnesses and experiences with saccharine sweetness, Krosoczka’s story shows these kids being like any other kids, kids who were allowed to be kids and escape the burden of hospitals and chemotherapy.
Those familiar with the artwork in Lunch Lady should recognize the art style, even if there’s a distinct lack of lunch ladies and cyborgs. He constantly proves how one doesn’t need realistic drawing to tell a more mature, complex story. The picture book-style renderings of characters are such that each character is unique from one another; adults don’t look like teenagers and teenagers don’t look like kids. Those who’ve read Hey Kiddo might also recognize the chain-smoking grandparents who serve as Krosoczka’s emotional sounding board. Krosoczka’s breezy art style, his periodic insertions of photos, and artwork that looks like something created during craft time at camp all provide a bit of tonal levity even as the book explores death and loss.
Sunshine: A Graphic Novel is not just an excellent example of using pictures and comic art to tell a story, it’s an excellent example of a graphic memoir. Krosoczka is not afraid to delve into some potentially emotional subjects, but his ability to discuss serious topics like death in a way that never veers into melodrama means it’s a good book for teens grappling with the idea of death. Sunshine’s greatest strength is how it focuses not on how a person died but how they lived.
Sunshine: A Graphic Novel
By Jarrett Krosoczka
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 12 years and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)