New children’s series “Judge Kim” is the brainchild of veteran comic book, video game and toy industry experts who pooled their knowledge of Black Panther, Fisher-Price and the film industry to weave a story series featuring a little black girl who settles disputes in the town of Fairville. Kim, a diverse standout with her textured hair, chocolate skin and little dog, is a multidimensional character whose mother is a judge, inspiring her to take up that job among the kid set.
The ten-year history of this series and its art is the subject of a current exhibition in New York City at the Society of Illustrators Museum of Illustration. It’s also a book that caught the eye of School Library Journal’s 2022 librarian, KC Boyd.
“This genre is just exploding,” explains Boyd, a former Newbery Award committee judge and school librarian in the Washington, DC area. “And here’s the thing. It sends a very quiet, yet powerful message to the child that says, ‘I count,’ and that ‘my stories are just as important as my peers.'” When I was a child, I didn’t see much of this on the bookshelves or in the libraries. Here we have a story that a young colored child could really relate to.”
Kim’s school friends include the mix of skin tones you might find in your average big city in America. Some kids are identifiably black — like Kim. Others are white. Some are Latino and Asian. Some may be biracial. There is also income disparity, which is lightly touched upon in the text, and which, through Judge Kim’s research, allows parents to talk to their children about such simple issues as affording a new, smart bike.
Martin, the son of an elementary school teacher in New York, came up with the idea after mixing two ideas: the success of graphic novels in boosting reading scores and his love of old TV Judges shows his mother used to watch decades ago .
“If you think about our country, our country is run by lawyers,” explains Martinbrough, an Image Comics veteran who has been nominated for an Eisner Award and whose comics projects include The Black Panther, Hellboy and Batman: Detective Comics. “Our congressmen are lawyers. And I feel like your average person has a fear of the law because they don’t understand the law. And I thought what would be really cool is to come up with a concept that could entertain kids, but also teach children and their families about the law from a young age.”
Judge Kim was born. The four co-creators are also friends, all independent celebrities in the entertainment industry. They pooled their resources to create her story and pitch the idea. At first she was a TV show, but over the years she has evolved into what and who she is now, as part of the Simon & Schuster publishing family. The book also comes with a glossary in the back of easy-to-understand definitions of important legal terms that children ages six to 12 may need to learn as part of the basics of being an American citizen. One of those words is judge.
Boyd, the librarian, says the inclusion of a glossary makes the book extremely accessible to teachers and to larger populations of students.
“I’m already thinking six steps ahead,” she explains. “If I were to do a book talk about these series, the teacher could include the words in the glossary as part of the spelling to be used across the curriculum. It was brilliant of them to do that. Somebody talked to a teacher.”
Video game designer and author Milo Stone also watched judge shows as a child. As a writer, he thought it would be a fun challenge to combine his childhood interests with the format of a graphic novel, as graphic novels are often more challenging to create because the language is more gentle. They also challenge children to read more deeply, since the child cannot rely on the crutch of an entire paragraph to give them a clue as to what a sentence means.
“The concept of the judging show? A lot of it was spent on the books,” explains Stone. “These kinds of shows are so wildly popular. That kind of format is a perfect format for a children’s book. We hope this stands out because it’s so unique compared to all the other book series, and it’s limitless in the amount of stories you can do.”
The characters also benefit from having been touched by experienced writers who understand that a children’s book benefits from subtle character development.
“We want characters with flaws,” Stone says, thinking of a number of popular Marvel, Image or DC characters made more interesting because they sometimes struggle.
Illustrator Christopher Jordan said that the choice to make the main character a darker-skinned black girl was deliberate in terms of showcasing diversity, as was the choice to center the type of child antics you could find in any neighborhood class in the United States. Or, in the child’s case, in the town of Fairville, where all should be fair.
The diverse note is key because books produced by and about children of color still lag behind the number of books published that center white children. It’s also worth noting that this book series tells stories that are positive without skewing saccharine, preachy, or patriarchal.
The Society of Illustrators event runs until March 18, giving the public – and fans of the authors – a chance to see illustrator Christopher Jordan’s work up close.
“Our young visitors have spent hours reading the work on our gallery walls,” says Anelle Miller, the executive director of the Museum of Illustration. “We are proud to host an exhibition showcasing the art of this incredibly creative as well as educational children’s book series.”
Jordan is humble when he talks about his decade-long contribution to the series. His work is in demand and he has signed contracts with clients big and small, but all the while he stayed with Judge Kim.
“We’ve been working on this project for so long together, all of us, that it would be unthinkable not to see it through,” says Jordan. “It doesn’t get more rewarding than being able to not only finish, but finish with a major publisher.”
Judge Kim and the Kids Court: The case of the missing bicycles, written by Martinbrough, Stone and Joseph Illidge and illustrated by Jordan is on sale now. Creating Justice: The Art of Judge Kim and the Kids Court can be found at the Society of Illustrators in New York City.
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