Friday, June 9, 2023

Author Interview: Jarrett Lerner, Author of A WORK IN PROGRESS

Guys, I recently had the chance to read Jarrett Lerner's new book and ask questions, and no surprise: neither he nor his new book disappoint - They are wonderful!


My Take:

This book is a profound and moving glimpse into what shame does to people; in this case, does to a young boy. Lerner’s writing and illustrations are genius, and this book is profound on so many levels. While this book deals with being overweight, the story applies to anything that makes a person feel othered and ashamed. Expect this one to earn lots of awards. It deserves it.

1.     Jarrett, you know I am a total fangirl – your work brings such joy and creativity to your readers — but A Work in Progress feels so personal.  Can you tell our readers about how you came to write the book?


Thank you! I’ve wanted to write the book for well over a decade now, and had been trying off and on every year or so. I could never get the story out of me in a way that felt authentic and complete and, you know, right. In a lot of ways, I don’t think I was ready. I think becoming a parent, understanding the importance of modeling vulnerability, the power of sharing the stories of our largest struggles – all that contributed to me finally being up for the task of finding the right words and drawings to get this story down on paper.




2.     The story begins with Will finding himself in the crosshairs of a bully — who no surprise has his own issues — and gets called out for his weight. I found this such a true moment, not just in your execution of the painful scene, but Will’s oblivion to the fact that he might be a little overweight. This is so true for kids: we’re going along in life, being loved by our parents, even being loved by other little kids unequivocally in the early elementary years, when suddenly it switches and you feel thrown to the wolves for no reason you can understand. How many times did you have to rewrite this scene? It is so viscerally painful, even as it so beautifully written.


I rewrote every word in the book more times than I can count. Every page of every book is the product of hundreds, even thousands of decisions – but this book was without a doubt the most difficult I’ve ever undertaken. This scene, though, the flashback that begins it all – I knew that had to be a focal point. It wasn’t always right there in the beginning. It was deep into the process that I realized the book, and Will’s story, needed to start with it. But it was always central. I think the hardest part about it was the framing. Giving readers a quick sense of who Will was before that moment, and then showing him who became after it, and how and why. A few years after the incident, Will compares that moment to an atom bomb going off in his life, wrecking everything in its path. The work was really making sure my readers felt every bit of that.




3.     We don’t read enough in novels about the impact shame has on kids, which is one of the reasons I love this book so much. We’ve all experienced shame in our lives, but kids are mostly not equipped to process and deal with it in an open way. How important was it to portray Will’s shame and really go there?



This is a great question, and I’m really glad you touched on this aspect of the story. I think shame – and/or the fear of experiencing shame – is one of the primary motivators for human beings. We’ll all do a whole lot to avoid embarrassment. And when we do get humiliated in some way, all bets are off when it comes to our reactions and responses. We’re liable to behave in ways we otherwise never would – maybe even in ways that are against are values and morals and best interests. I also think that all of us, to some extent, carry around and live with shame on a daily basis, and talking about it with kids can be powerful. It can be a productive path toward the opposite of shame: self-acceptance, and hopefully even self-love.




4.     It takes a long time for Will’s parents to clue in that something’s up, and I couldn’t help wondering if it’s because weight is such a taboo subject, even as overweight people are shamed mercilessly for what society deems their lack of self control. Was it hard to get the right balance in Will’s relationship with his parents?



 I didn’t want to portray Will’s parents in any way that they could be blamed for what’s happening to him. It’s way more complicated than that. It’s not that they’re not paying attention. I suppose you could say they could’ve asked more questions, sure. But tweens and teens typically aren’t the most forthcoming with answers, especially when the questions are about sensitive subjects. Part of the problem, too, is that Will puts a lot of creativity and efforts into hiding what he’s doing. He doesn’t want to be found out, and he’s a smart kid. He deploys those brains to deflect unwanted attention from his parents. I think, heartbreakingly, that everyone has something they’re dealing with. Something that troubles them, that can make what might otherwise be an okay or even a good day not so good. But a lot of that suffering happens silently. A lot of it hides in plain sight. I wanted to show that. And I hope I did it in a way that doesn’t leave my readers despondent, but instead compels them to be gentler with those around them, and to maybe, genuinely, ask each other how they’re doing once in a while. 




5.     I’m not going to lie: I cried multiple times reading this book, and not just because of how beautifully the story is written, but also how beautifully you’ve illustrated Will’s story. The pain jumps off the page because of your illustrations, which is amazing. Did you always intend for this to be a graphic novel?



I mentioned before how many attempts I made to get this story onto paper, and it wasn’t until I landed on this idea of framing it as Will’s notebook that it really started coming in a way that felt right. The book is modeled after my own notebooks that I kept when I was Will’s age. They were a chaotic collage of free verse (which I happened upon without even knowing there was a term for it, just because it allowed me to get my thoughts and feelings and ideas out onto the page faster, without worrying about complete or proper sentences) and drawings of varying completeness. The form was perfect for me and this story for a number of reasons, one being that I always like to use words and pictures if I’m able (it’s how I think, and how I most naturally create), and also because I think it helped make Will’s story as raw and true and potent as possible. Will doesn’t know anyone’s reading his notebook. He’s sharing his story incidentally. And I think, because of this, it lends a certain power to everything. Because of this, an enormous knotty scribble means something. It’s not performative. He doesn’t know he’s sharing it with anyone. He’s just trying to get it out of him, for some sort of release or relief. The form sort of strips away any barriers between us and Will’s naked thoughts and feelings. If he was narrating in prose, if there weren’t the notebook lines – basically, if the story was told in any other way – I don’t think it would hit anywhere near as hard as it does.





6.     I know this book is so personal for you, but you should be so proud, because a lot of kids are going to feel seen, whatever their issue is, and a lot of discussions and empathy are going to be created. There’s going to be some pretty powerful school trips and letters about this book! Are you ready for that? (Pretty sure I know the answer!)



It’s begun! I just returned from a tour surrounding the book’s release. I’m fortunate to have now shared and discussed it with thousands of kids and adults. It was terrifying, at first – but after just a couple sessions, all that fell away, and it just felt good. Really, really good. Getting up in front of people and being vulnerable, talking about your toughest, darkest times – it is, perhaps paradoxically, extremely empowering. And the kids have responded so strongly to it. At my launch part for the book, I asked a friend of mine – the great Lynda Mullaly Hunt – if she had any advice for me, as I was starting my school visits for the book the very next day and, as I mentioned, I was terrified. She told me to get up on stage and be as honest and vulnerable as I could possibly be. Be a wide-open book. She told me the kids would see that, and respect it, and tune in, and even reciprocate. And she was right. I’ve been so impressed and delighted by how willing, even eagerkids are to discuss all the issues broached in the book. It’s been remarkable, and yeah – I’m very proud and grateful I can serve as a role model for these kids, and I hope sharing my story, and Will’s story, helps ensure that their stories never get as dark or troubled as ours. 



7.     What’s next?



A summer of rest and relaxation! When I’m not working to hit my looming deadlines, that is. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m fortunate to have a whole bunch of books lined up for the coming years. I can’t wait to share.




Thanks Jarrett – both for writing an amazing novel that is going to help and support so many kids and for being such an ally for kids everywhere! Bravo!

want to learn more about Jarrett and his book? Click here.