Reviewed by Amanda Smith
In A Work in Progress (Aladdin, May 2023), Jarrett Lerner introduces the reader to Will Chambers, a middle school boy who struggles with self-acceptance and negative body-image. A cruel classmate’s ruthless words, slung at Will back in fourth grade, were “tattooed on [his] brain” and set Will on a path of self-loathing and social withdrawal. He slinks in hallways, hides in oversized clothes, and becomes his “own bully” doing “the job better than anyone else possibly could.” Written as Will’s personal notebook, this groundbreaking illustrated novel-in verse takes the reader deep into Will’s emotional pain and physical battle with eating disorders.
The fact that this seldom told story, about body dysmorphia in boys, is presented in a format appealing to its intended audience makes this book a trailblazer. Sparse text, emotion-laden doodles, and swaths of negative space on the pages make this an accessible, though not light, choice for young readers.
However, even children who do not combat negative body-image will find themselves somewhere in the pages of this highly relatable novel that addresses among other teen-tensions, the feeling of not being enough, changing friendships, hiding-in-plain-sight, anger, and shame. Like Will, every teen yearns to be truly seen, to be understood, and to have confidence. Along with Will, all young readers can discover that it is okay to be A Work in Progress.
In his guest blog, Jarrett digs into the challenges keeping writing tight while creating a novel that looks like a fun notebook, with squiggles and doodles, exclamation points and creative typography. (You can find the blog here.)
A Work in Progress shines as a mentor text for diction. Although this book is a departure from Jarret Lerner’s usual humorous style, his language use still honors the age of the narrator, despite the heaviness of the topic. For example, about the inciting incident, Will uses the following metaphor:
“You’ve stepped through
and now the thing
You step through
and then the door
Jarrett’s word-choice for the things Will notices, in his internal rants, and even in the figures of speech Will uses, emulates the way Lerner’s readers experience and talk about their world. Read your writing out loud. Do your word-choice and phrasing reflect your readers’ world?
Visit Jarrett’s website to learn more about his story and books.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.