~by Amanda Smith
Noah is a pretty typical middle schooler. He attends a small school where everybody knows everybody’s business, and the biggest news is who’s kissing who behind the storage shed. Yet, in Noah’s family, the Thing That Happened silently rules their household and interactions. As Noah’s sister, Emma, becomes increasingly controlling about food, Noah notices signs that The Thing is happening again, but his parents’ denial and efforts to keep Emma from relapsing cause Noah to suppress his own concerns. He frustration grows as his best friends bicker and fall out over, what seems to Noah, insignificant issues, while his family is unraveling.
STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS (2016, Candlewick Press) explores eating disorders and their effect on family members from a sibling’s point of view. Noah’s love and concern for Emma contrasts with his inability to understand why she makes herself sick, and his anger at her for doing so. Knowles illustrates these conflicting emotions in Noah’s response towards Curly, the school cat, who is, like Emma, stressed, frail, vulnerable and adored.
With a gentle touch, spots of bright humor, an interesting cast of secondary characters, and a loveable, believable main character, this thoughtful novel will have readers laughing out loud while reaching for the Kleenex. With empathy, Jo Knowles shows us the devastating effect of depression and eating disorders on families, while emphasizing the importance of relationships (with friends, parents, teachers, and pets) in times of crises.
Jo Knowles has a wonderful ability to reveal character in bite-size bits. When she first introduces a new character, she gives a short description, but builds on that description throughout the novel. This mirrors the little-bits-at-a-time way in which we get to know people in the real world, and results in readers feeling as if they’re gaining a circle of new friends.
In STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, Knowles also employs the animal characters in various ways. They are not just pets, but Curly and Captain offer comic relief, evoke empathy, and drive home points about characters and events in the story.
In the same way, food is used throughout the novel to convey emotions, illustrate differences, build tension, amp-up turning points, and reveal aspects of Noah’s character. Using food as a device in a novel about eating disorders is pure Jo Knowles brilliance!
To learn more about Jo Knowles and her books, visit her website www.joknowles.com/
In this video clip, Jo talks about the inspiration for the hilarious chapter titles for STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS.
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