Jarrett Krosoczka, a Northampton children’s book author and illustrator, was visiting his old elementary school in Worcester a few years ago when he bumped into a woman named Jean Cariglia, who used to be his lunch lady.
From that chance encounter grew Krosoczka’s popular “Lunch Lady” series of graphic novels about a school cafeteria worker who fights crime with spatulas and other kitchen gadgets. (Slogan: “Serving justice! And serving lunch!”) The books have won two Children’s Choice Book Awards, sold 350,000 copies, and been optioned by Universal Pictures for a live action film starring Amy Poehler as Lunch Lady.
But it was Krosoczka’s funny, poignant lecture — about his difficult childhood in Massachusetts and the family, teachers, and mentors who supported him through those years — that has earned him attention from around the world. Delivered last fall, his speech has been selected as one of the most inspiring of the TED Talks, the influential series of lectures by artists, scientists, and other big thinkers around the globe. His talk has been viewed online more than 400,000 times.
His success has given him a platform to advocate for real-life lunch ladies — or “school nutrition professionals,” as some prefer to be known. They are among the most “maligned” figures in popular culture, he said. “They are far from the nasty old lady slopping goulash on the tray. They are the most positive, cheery people I have ever met.”
Krosoczka has declared Friday, May 3 — his former lunch lady’s birthday — as national “School Lunch Superhero Day.” His goal is to showcase lunch ladies from across the country and give students and parents a chance to thank them.
Not surprisingly, Krosoczka, 35, has become the darling of school nutrition professionals everywhere.
“I’m like, ‘Yes!’ ” said Janice Watt, food service director for the Uxbridge Public Schools, who learned about the initiative at a conference in Washington, D.C. “We are constantly battling the stereotypes of mean, old, ugly lunch ladies with moles, serving mystery meat.”
School Lunch Superhero Day is only one of Krosoczka’s many charitable initiatives. He started a scholarship fund at the Worcester Art Museum for at-risk kids. He helps promote literacy in Springfield, where two-thirds of third-graders are poor readers. He hosts a segment on SiriusXM’s “Kids Place Live,” a radio show about children’s books, to highlight the work of other children’s authors. With his wife, Gina, he cofounded a children’s book and music festival in Northampton. He crisscrosses the country, visiting schools to encourage kids to read and draw, and, above all, to use their imaginations.
Until recently, Krosoczka was very guarded about his childhood. That changed last October when he got a call from the organizer of a TEDx program at Hampshire College, modeled after the TED Talks series. A speaker had canceled and they asked him to fill in. Feeling honored, he agreed. Then they told him the catch: He had to speak in four hours.
Scrambling for a topic, his wife urged him to talk candidly about his childhood. With no time to come up with other options, he delivered a moving talk about his early years and the people who inspired and encouraged him. The talk caught the attention of the TED editorial team, which featured it in January on TED.com.
He spoke in his talk about his mother — “the most talented artist I knew” — who was addicted to heroin and often incarcerated. “When your parent is a drug addict it’s kind of like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football,” he said. “Every time you open your heart, you end up on your back.”
He spoke about his “faceless” father, whose first name he didn’t know until sixth grade. He was raised by his maternal grandparents, Joseph and Shirley Krosoczka, who adopted him when he was 2 after raising their five children.
“They loved the hell out of me,” Krosoczka said, instilling in him a strong work ethic, encouraging his love of drawing, sending him to art classes at Worcester Art Museum after public funding was all but eliminated for art in local schools.
But life with his grandparents had its own problems, and he hinted at a less-than-picture-perfect household: “By the time I was 6 I could order a Southern Comfort Manhattan, dry with a twist, rocks on the side. Ice on the side so you could fit more liquor in the drink.”
His grandparents gave him a stable life, but they had no control over the actions of his mother who was in and out of his life “like a yo-yo,” Krosoczka said. He lived in fear that other kids would ask him where his parents were, and had a story ready to go about how they had to travel for work all the time.
He escaped the reality around him by losing himself in sketchbooks. He would rush home from school and draw. His characters became his friends, including an adventurous egg, tomato, lettuce, and pumpkin who lived in “Refrigerator City” and dodged enemies like an evil blender and a microwave that tried to melt their friend, a stick of butter.
Third grade was the year something “monumental” happened. Children’s book author Jack Gantos came to his school to talk about what he did for a living. He wandered into the classroom where Krosoczka was drawing, stopped at Krosoczka’s desk and studied his picture.
“Nice cat,” Gantos said.
“Two words,” said Krosoczka, “that made a colossal difference in my life.”
He made friends by drawing pictures of his teachers. He became the cartoonist for his high school newspaper. He graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1999, and set up a studio in Boston. After countless rejections from publishers and art directors, he published his first picture book in 2001, “Good Night, Monkey Boy.”
A dozen years later, Krosoczka has written and/or illustrated 30 popular, playful books including “Ollie the Purple Elephant” and “Punk Farm” about a group of barnyard animals in an underground rock band.
“He completely understands children,” said Anita Silvey, an editor and children’s literary critic who teaches at Simmons College. “He has a tremendous sympathy for them. I look at the ‘Lunch Lady’ series and think they are headed into classic status.”
These days are good days for Krosoczka, who has two young daughters. He is energetic and personable, with impossibly spiky hair that looks as though he penciled it in himself. He seems relentlessly upbeat, which he attributes to an innately positive outlook and to his grandparents’ “indelible” sense of humor. Though Krosoczka does not see his mother often, he says his father has become a “great friend.”
His TED Talk has been selected as one of the most inspiring of the series. Teachers have told him he’s changed the way they teach. He has received invitations to speak at schools as far away as Eastern Europe and Malaysia.
“There is not a day that goes by when I don’t get a message from someone in a different country, be it a tweet or a Facebook post,” he said. “I’m getting tweets in characters I don’t understand, not just languages.”
His fan base seems poised to grow. “Punk Farm” has been optioned by MGM as an animated film. Another Lunch Lady book was published April 23. “Platypus Police Squad: The Frog Who Croaked” come out in May.
“When I think of Jarrett, I think about somebody who rose above crazy, unimaginable circumstances and takes all of the good in life and shares it,” said Robin Adelson, executive director of the Children’s Book Council, the national trade association of children’s book publishers. “He is one of those life-changing people.”
Krosoczka keeps up a dizzying travel schedule, visiting about 70 schools each year with his message about the importance of using one’s imagination, on paper.
The lunch ladies and librarians love his visits, of course, but what he most enjoys is letting “lots of kids know that they draw great cats.”