A Work in Progress
Jarrett Lerner —Interview
I am been following author/illustrator Jarrett Lerner on Twitter for years. What really caught my eye is how during the pandemic he posted drawing activities for kids. He is the author/illustrator of the humorous EngiNerds and Geiger the Robot series as well as the new Nat the Cat series. Now he has a new book out written in verse on a more serious topic.
About the Book
Hi Jarrett! I was so honored to get to read A Work in Progress. Can you give us a short summary about the book?
Thank you! Here’s the official description from my publisher:
Will is the only round kid in a school full of this ones. 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?
Will’s best shot at attracting Jules’s attention is by slaying the Will Monster inside him by changing his eating habits and getting more exercise. But the results are either frustratingly slow or infuriatingly unsuccessful, and Will’s shame begins to morph into self-loathing.
As he resorts to increasingly drastic measures to transform his appearance, Will meets skateboarder Markus, who helps him see his body and all it contains as an ever-evolving work in progress.
Tell us who would especially enjoy this book?
I worked had to make sure this book would be enjoyable for as many readers as possible. The book is physically big – 360-something pages – but is only 18,000 words long (other Middle Grade books of that page length contain probably four or five times that many words). It’s also highly illustrated. I hope kids (and adults!) who see bits of themselves in Will’s story will read it, and that they’ll find comfort and hope. But I also hope just as many, if not more, kids (and adults!) will read it, too, and hopefully be left with greater empathy for their peers.
I saw your tweet about misconceptions of eating disorders. What misconceptions did you address in your book?
I think the biggest misconception is that disordered eating and eating disorders are things that are only developed by girls. Growing up, when I was going through what Will goes through in the book, I sought out books that addressed body image, disordered eating, and body dysmorphia (though I certainly hadn’t learned all those terms yet). I found very few, and all of them had two things in common: the protagonists were girls, and they were always extreme cases. It wasn’t until a couple years ago, when I had already begun working on what would become A Work in Progress, that I first read a book about a boy who had a troubled relationship with their body and food and eating, but whose troubles didn’t require medical intervention. I hope Will’s story helps fill that still-enormous gap in the literature. We need those books that I did find on shelves back when I was in middle school, but we also need ones about the kids silently suffering with problems that fall just short of grabbing adults’ attention. Unfortunately, when it comes to bodily insecurity and disordered eating, there are a tremendous number of kids suffering.
About the Author/Illustrator
How did your childhood help to shape this book (both content and format)?
Will’s story is a fictionalized version of my own. My own story took place over more time, and featured a larger cast of characters. In order to make the book as powerful as possible, I had to compress time and characters. And while having had all these experiences certainly gave me the ability to authentically tell this story, that doesn’t mean it was easy. Making A Work in Progress was the toughest creative challenge of my life. I’d been trying for over a decade to get the story out of me in a way that felt “right.” It wasn’t until I finally landed on the idea of telling the story as if it were being set down in real time in Will’s private notebook/sketchbook that things started moving in that “right” direction. And Will’s notebook looks very much like my own notebooks did back when I was his age – a mishmash of free verse, doodles, and drawings.
What authors and/or illustrators would you say influenced your writing and illustration style?
So many. Too many to name. There’s a quote I think about (and share) nearly every day of my life: “Reading is breathing in, writing is breathing out.” Pam Allen said that. It’s just brilliant. And so very true. You can’t write well without reading. And you can’t draw well without “reading” drawings. These two things – reading and writing (and drawing, if you tell stories visually) – are two parts of the same process. The more you do one, the better you get at the other. So I read constantly, and have been influenced by so, so many. Along with that, I’m constantly exposing myself to new authors and illustrators – always seeking to be influenced in new ways and continue growing as a creator.
Do you share any personality traits with Will Chambers and/or Markus?
I think there’s a part of me in every one of my characters. I’m not sure if it starts that way, or if the process of writing and drawing them engages my empathy in a way that I just, by the end of it all, feel so connected and close to them. I guess, when it comes to Will and Markus, I’d say that I’m just where Will is at the end of book – he’s still himself, but he’s trying his best to adopt some of the approaches to life that Markus embodies and shares.
I love how the artwork adds an additional layer to the story. Do you incorporate the artwork in your brainstorming/early draft? Please share your process.
Yes. I start all of my projects longhand, usually in composition notebooks. I write and draw, back and forth, sometimes leaning more heavily on one or another – whatever language, verbal or visual, I can use to get my ideas out of my head and down onto paper at any given moment. Usually, once I’ve got a clearer idea of the story I’m trying to tell, I try to figure out what specific format will best serve the story. Sometimes, I decide that it’s best to stick with just text, that I want my readers to provide all the story’s visuals in their imagination. Sometimes I decide text with occasional illustrations will be ideal to tell a story in the most funny or exciting or powerful or emotionally resonant (or whatever I’m going for) way. And sometimes, I have to sort of create my own form. My editor has taken to calling many of my upcoming books “hybrids,” because the usual terminology can’t really capture what they are. They’re not traditional chapter books, but not full graphic novels – I’ve taken to telling each part of a story using whatever tool best accomplishes what I want that part to do. There are a lot of other creators who’ve begun doing this. Each season, more and more books get published that defy these easy classifications. I think it’s one of the most exciting trends in publishing right now, and will only grow in the coming years.
And are these illustrations done by hand or on a computer?
I work on all my art on paper, but once I’ve got a clear conception of what a final piece needs to be, I work digitally. The art you see in my books is all done on an iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil (second generation) and the Procreate app.
What’s your art background? Were you a writer or illustrator first? And how did the second one happen?
I’m self-taught, so to speak. Growing up, I took every art class and every creative writing course offered in school. But I don’t have any formal training in either writing or drawing. I read, and looked, and copied and copied and copied, gradually finding my own approach and processes and developing my own style.
More About Jarrett
How can we learn more about you?
Twitter and Instagram: @Jarrett_Lerner
Thanks for your time, Jarrett!
Thank YOU! Really excellent questions. I appreciate them very much, and the opportunity to share.
Jarrett will be giving a copy of A Work in Progress to a lucky reader. Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a copy. (U.S. addresses only)
I love novels in verse and this looks like a great one! I know many of my students will love this one!
This sounds like a book that would be a great fit for some of the readers at my elementary school. It addresses issues that we don’t have many books about in a format that is easily accessible. My students love to read illustrated novels.