A Work in Progress begins with a memory. Will Chambers, minding his business in his elementary school hallway, is publicly bullied. He’s humiliated and shamed for the shape of his body. He’s called fat – the word spat at him like it’s a verdict, like he’s being declared guilty of a heinous crime.
Over the course of the next few poems, Will traces the ways in which the trauma of this experience is internalized, until he ultimately becomes his own bully and, to paraphrase his words, does the job of bullying himself better than anyone else possibly could.
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Will – previously an affable, outgoing kid – begins to draw inward. He hides his body in bigger, baggier clothes. He hides his true, troublesome feelings from his friends and family, drifting further and further away from them, until they ultimately feel unreachable. Eventually, he hides himself, keeping to the back of classrooms, avoiding hallways when they are most crowded, and eating (or, increasingly, not eating) his lunch in a forgotten, unvisited spot behind his school’s auditorium.
While I don’t want to give too much away and risk spoiling the reading experience for anyone, I can say that Will, eventually, makes his way to a better place. He’s not fully healed, he’s not perfect. He’s learned, though, that no one is, and has, on top of that, acquired the beginnings of an appreciation of himself and the journey he’s on. He’s found hope, and has discovered a way to let that guide him.
I wrote A Work in Progress for many reasons. One was that I had never before seen a book about a boy struggling with their body image and disordered eating, and to have had a book like that while I was struggling with such stuff as a young boy would’ve been miraculous. Another was that I wanted to shine a light on what I’ve come to think of as silent suffering – a quiet kind of distress, a pain that doesn’t announce itself but instead hides, even dresses up in all manner of disguises to deflect attention and cancel concern.
To some extent, I believe we are all silently suffering from something or other. It may very well be an inescapable part of the human condition. But hopefully, as adults, we acquire tools and develop techniques to better confront and handle those things that trouble us. It’s far rarer for kids to have those tools and techniques, and, on top of this, I often worry that today’s kids are being made to deal with more than any of the generations of kids before them. More information, more stimulation – both for better and, often, for worse.
More specifically, I worry that it’s just about impossible for a kid today to make it through adolescence and on into adulthood with a wholly healthy relationship with their body. Whether, like Will, the perceived “wrongness” of their size and/or shape is pointed out publicly, or the content they consume on their phones, TVs, and computers draw attention to their physical “shortcomings” and “flaws,” kids can’t help but become intensely conscious of the way in which they take up space.
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I hope A Work in Progress offers kids a place to explore the feelings they have about their bodies, and that it creates opportunities for those kids to have conversations about such things with one another and with the caring adults in their lives. I especially hope the book helps kids suffering similarly to Will feel seen, understood, respected, and appreciated. And I hope it gives many, if not all, such kids an example and potential path out of a dark place. I hope these readers can glean some of Will’s hard-fought wisdom without having to do so much “hard fighting” themselves. And I hope it helps everyone who reads it – young or old – reflect on the ways in which they are perhaps their own bullies, and, in turn, helps them develop a healthier relationship with themselves and any aspects of themselves they are particularly critical of.
It’s been said that books are empathy machines. I couldn’t agree more, and believe that is one of the most important reasons why it’s so imperative we continue producing and protecting books and the rights of readers to read them. I hope A Work in Progress activates readers empathy, and even creates new forms and expressions of it. Empathy for kids like Will, struggling with body image issues and disordered eating (which, sadly, there are no doubt scores of in every school and community). But also empathy for every other kid. For every other adult. For every human being we happen to come in contact with during our time on this planet – including, of course, ourselves. Because, as upsetting as it can sometimes be, we are all struggling with something. We are all works in progress. And the more grace we can give ourselves and each other on our individual journeys to becoming the truest, healthiest versions of ourselves, the better off we all will be. It will make us all feel less alone. It will “un-silence” much of our suffering, and in so doing, help lessen it.
Meet the author
Author-illustrator Jarrett Lerner is the award-winning creator of the EngiNerds series of Middle Grade novels, the Geeger the Robot series of early chapter books, the activity books Give This Book a Title and Give This Book a Cover, The Hunger Heroes series of graphic novel chapter books, and the Nat the Cat series of early readers. Jarrett is also the creator of the forthcoming illustrated novel in verse A Work in Progress, as well as several as-yet-unannounced projects. All of Jarrett’s books are published by Simon & Schuster. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his wife and daughters in Massachusetts.
About A Work in Progress
A young boy struggles with body image in this poignant middle grade journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration.
Will is the only round kid in a school full of string beans. So he hides…in baggy jeans and oversized hoodies, in the back row during class, and anywhere but the cafeteria during lunch. But shame isn’t the only feeling that dominates Will’s life. He’s also got a crush on a girl named Jules who knows he doesn’t have a chance with—string beans only date string beans—but he can’t help wondering what if?
Publication date: 05/02/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post