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A Work In Progress by Jarrett Lerner

Jarrett Lerner shares A Work in Progress (Aladdin Paperbacks), a poignant and "perceptive" journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration about a young boy who struggles with body image.

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About the book: A Work in Progress by Jarrett Lerner. Published by Aladdin Paperbacks

A young boy struggles with body image in this poignant and "perceptive" (Publishers Weekly, starred review) middle grade journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration.

Will is the only round kid in a school full of thin ones. So he 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 he knows he doesn't have a chance with, because of his size--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.

Episode Transcript:


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.

I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 

I love the symbiotic connection between teachers and authors. It’s a mutual admiration society. It’s unity around a common cause. It’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s… the best.

There are a number of authors and illustrators whose online presence leaves no question around their affinity for teachers and librarians, and the work we all do in tandem. Today’s guest is one of those people. And I’m so glad this particular book brought the two of us together.

Today I welcome Jarrett Lerner to the podcast.

At the time of recording, Jarrett was promoting his new illustrated middle grade novel in verse, A Work in Progress (Aladdin Paperbacks), a poignant and "perceptive" journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration about a young boy who struggles with body image.

Let’s step into my conversation with Jarrett Lerner. 

Ready? Here we go.


Jarrett: Hi, my name is Jared Lerner. I'm an author, illustrator of books for kids. Most recently, I just came out with a work in progress. 

Matthew: I am so glad I get to say to your face how much I like this book.

I'm realizing I could have done that before recording and this doesn't even need to go in, but I don't know that you know that I read it. I was up for a international podcast award. When does that happen? Oh my goodness. So I flew out to Vegas and it was actually a pretty tumultuous thing. Again, this won't be on recording, but I have already, I had already been laid off.

And my ex boss wrote me and he was like, I feel like, I feel like you have to go. We'll fly you out. And, uh, two days before he wrote me and said, I'm sorry, the board changed their mind, we don't have money to fly you out. And Amy's like, You have to go, honey. And so I went out to Vegas by myself and it was fine.

I'm quite introverted. So it worked at points to be by myself, but at other points it was really hard. But being in that like strong place of introspection to read a work in progress was like, wow, this really worked for me to, I mean, all of us, we read different books at different times in our life and that That means something different.

So I guess that leads into the next question, which is asking you to introduce us to Will Chambers. And I don't know when in his life or at, at the point in the story, you want to share who he is, but as I noted to you, I'd love for however you introduce him to, whether it's the way he would show up at a school visit or the way we start the book or just, you're the author, you care for this character.

So you tell me, Jarrett, how would you like to introduce Will Chambers to all of us? 

Jarrett: Yeah, well, let me just say I love this question so much. Um, if Will were to introduce you, himself, to the, to the world, to a school full of kids, he would probably be too shy to, and he would probably just maybe say his name, especially in the beginning of the book.

By the end of the book. He might share about himself that he loves to draw, that he's learning how to skateboard, all that stuff. But the way that I would talk about Will, probably not in front of him for fear of embarrassing him. But in the beginning of the book, I think Will is someone who doesn't like himself that much.

He doesn't see much of value in himself. And by the end of the book, that's changing. But I think the way that I've come to think about Will and the thing that I love and respect the most about him is his bravery at the end of the book. He admits that he's dealing with a lot of scary things, unsettling things, and he's brave enough to share them with people and to ask for help.

And it took me until I was in my thirties to do that and he does it when he's in seventh grade in the book. And so what I really take away from Will and admire about him, especially, I just got back from touring with the book and talking about him nonstop all day every day for weeks, is, is the bravery of being able to put yourself out there and open up and share yourself.

with the world. Yeah. 

Matthew: I feel like I can just hear how much you love and care for him. And that speaks to me as a teacher, I think. I think the good ones, as David Anderson would have called us, those good teachers, the good ones, really strive to see a kid for how they show up in the world and love them and hold space for them just that way.

I appreciate hearing that from you. I know from reading a note, or maybe even just reading your social media, that this is a book that you've worked on, or the seed of the idea you've worked on for a long time. So I wonder what moment or idea or event inspired you even, even to tell this story, to tell a work in progress.

Jarrett: I have been trying to tell this story off and on for over a decade, for since I was in college, I, I've been trying to do it and I could never get it out in a way that felt authentic and complete. And I think The thing that changed in my life and allowed me to tell this story in a way that felt really right and genuine and authentic and responsible, I think I had to go through a lot of healing myself.

I think I needed to do what Will does towards the end of the book and what I just, uh, admired his bravery. Um, what he so bravely does, being able to open up and ask for help and share and sort of admit some weaknesses and do some work on yourself and some self reflection. I don't think I was able to do that until I was much older and really.

I think having kids of my own and beginning to be a father and understanding the ways in which I could best be a father and wanting to be the best version of myself for my kids at all times, I think that really compelled me and inspired me to really work on myself and become a bigger fan of myself.

Because I went through years and years not being the biggest fan of myself, for a lot of the reasons that Will isn't the biggest fan of himself. And, um, once I had started to sort of heal and get better and talk to people and open up and ask for help, I think I was finally on the other side of some of this stuff enough, not totally, but enough, that I could actually tell this story in a way that was helpful instead of just You know, writing down events, I could tell it in a way that was meaningful and that would hopefully connect with others so that when kids read it, they can sort of get inside that situation and feel for will and really learn from the experience.

that's what I think books are around to do, to have us connect deeply, empathetically with characters, and hopefully through meeting these characters in books and moving through their lives with them for a while. We sort of gained some experience and knowledge and insight into the world around us and the people and ourselves.

but I think it, with this book, I had to really do a lot of work on myself before I could put the words down and pictures down, right. To tell the story I have had.

Matthew:  I've had representation, I've had, um, agents drop me, I've had whatever, I've had stories written, I've had whatever, um, but I feel like I, maybe, probably many of us do, but I deeply understand the idea, the concept of, um, I, I wasn't ready to write that story yet, I wasn't there yet, um, I feel like, not to go too much into my own story, but there, there's so much there that it took me, therapy, to be able to sort of establish the second self that I could look at myself, not from being in it, but for being sort of apart from it, uh, as well as learning, being taught, working on the muscle to, um, to have empathy for myself, to love myself, to be able to, um, yeah, just to be able to understand.

So I really appreciate it. Um, that'll be truly a, a, a conversation I'd love to have over coffee with you sometime. 

Jarrett: Yeah, me too. 

Matthew: So, um, this story of A Work in Progress, it's told through the voice of will and through his journal entries and through his drawings. And I, as I shared with you, I found it to be really compelling in just immediately putting me I don't want to say in his shoes because I think that it's dangerous to assume an identity.

I was not will reading this book, but it did immediately put me at his side. It put me at his side. And, um, I wonder if that was always the way you said this has evolved your ability to tell the story, but I also know that sometimes the format, the approach, the voice, uh, changes as well. So I wonder what that was like for you.

And if there was, I don't know, even sort of a, an aha, unlock moment of, there it is, that's the way to tell the story. 

Jarrett: Yeah, so I mentioned that I've tried to tell this story a lot of different ways, um, and a lot of different times. And every time I would revisit it, maybe every nine months, every year or so, I would get this urge, this desire to try to get it out of me again.

And because every previous time I had failed, I would always try something different. And I would think that this was going to be, you know, the key to unlock it in a way that the, the book would come out of me in a way that felt right. And the way that felt good.

And like I was making progress. Um, So I would change the tense.

I would write it in past tense or present tense, or I would write it in first person or second person. I tried once I would tell it from multiple perspectives or someone else's perspective. And I feel like I had exhausted all possibilities. And I was just doing sort of like an exercise of writing sort of as well, just to sort of sink deeper into the character.

And I sort of. hit on this idea of modeling the story, uh, as a notebook, much like the notebooks I kept when I was Will's age and going through this thing. So these notebooks you see of Will with the scribbles, with the sketches, with the drawings that are more well done, with the free verse, with the sometimes just lists of words, these Will's age.

And, um, For me, that was a huge part of what unlocked my being able to tell the story in this way that felt really raw and authentic. For me, a lot of writing is about voice. I want to get the voice just right so that when my readers see it, start listening to that voice, reading it to themselves or an audiobook or having it read aloud to them in a library or classroom.

I want them to immediately feel like the character is reaching out and like, like you said, right beside them talking. And this was the way that I thought it was best to do it. To give readers almost like a private peek into a, into a book, like they're not even sure they should be reading it. Almost like they stumbled upon a diary.

Because I don't think in the beginning of the book, Will is someone who would have willingly shared his story with anyone. So it sort of had to be by accident that you were stumbling upon it. Um, and one thing to add to it, this format, Um, I'm, I'm talking about this at school visits, is I really hope that it encourages every kid who reads it, if they don't already, to have a notebook, a sketchbook, a place where they can put down their thoughts and ideas and feelings, whether it comes in the form of a doodle, a scribble, or a string of words that don't necessarily have to be a full, complete, perfect sentence.

I think there's such power in making marks to capture the things you're thinking and feeling when words and pictures. Um, and I think it's, it's a really important thing for all of us to do. Um, so I hope it encourages kids, kids to do that as well. Um, and also a shout out to my editor who just, looks at these crazy forms I give her and some of my books I have coming out are even more a little bit out there.

And she just says, great, if this is the way the story has to be told, this is the way the story has to be told. And doesn't say, you know, you can't do that. You can't do that. Um, sometimes rules have got to be broken, I guess. 

Matthew: It, it, it occurs to me that writing in a journal, I've taken to journal writing actually when, when I've had really big emotions very recently, I finally started to get myself into the habit of having a journal on hand and using that.

And I find that it's really helpful also in, for lack of better words, I guess, cause it's a very bookish phrase, but I found that I'm, and maybe all of us are unreliable narrators. The story that I think I'm living, the emotion that feels. It absolutely validly feels as big as it does, but three, five days later, a month later, when I revisit it, it doesn't feel the same.

And so whether that's the story I tell myself in the moment is only that moment, it's not the forever, or if my future self needs that, that sort of proof of life to look back and go, that was hard, but here we are. Um, it's a really, it's a really great thing. So yeah, I'm glad that I'm glad you're modeling it too.

And I, as the comment that you made makes me reflect on like, what would, what would someone think if they found my journal? And I think the way that you wrote Will and the way that you wrote his story in this journal, so again, beautifully respects him in that it's not, it's not, I'm going to tell you this gossip.

I'm going to tell you these things that like, you're going to, he might not agree, but you're going to like socially wreck me, but rather it's, um, I defy you to not care about me after, after seeing this vulnerability, maybe even asking yourself, I wonder, I wonder if he would ever be that vulnerable with me.

How could I be that friend for him to be that vulnerable with me? 

Jarrett: I love that. I love that phrase. I defy you to not care. I think that's right. I think that's what a lot of books. come at us and do. Um, yeah. 

Matthew: Yeah. So we meet Will in a time that he's struggling and he's struggling with how he sees himself, how he feels about his body, how he sees his body, um, his relationship with eating.

and it's complicated. And I think that I think that we all probably a little bit go through stuff like that. I mentioned to you over a direct message or something though, that it also personally made me think about my depression and how it just made me reflect in a way. Um, there's also an incident of bullying that, that.

really is just sticky for Will. It just sticks and sticks and sticks. And I think again, probably therapy has taught me that we've all got things that just stick in a way that you just don't anticipate. I'd love to ask you though, if you could broadly share what it can look like for people to struggle with body image, um, and how that, that, how that can be related to bullying.

Not ever, ever. I don't want to ever imply. But one will off, will, will initiate the other or something like that, but just that holding space for how complicated it is, how complex it is, and that one, one can sort of make the other lodged even deeper. 

Jarrett: Yeah. Um, I think what I would say is, and, and what I really hoped to accomplish with this book, um, primarily, at least at first, it was to make.

Anyone going through this sort of thing feel like they're not alone and know that they're not alone. These sorts of things are heartbreakingly common and increasingly common, especially among kids and teens. But as I, and I as a kid, was certain that I was alone, especially as a boy dealing with this stuff.

I was like, no one has ever experienced this, especially no boys. Um, because the information I had was so incomplete and, um, only gleaned from, you know, not accurate or, uh, responsible sources about body image and eating disorder and disordered eating. I didn't even know what disordered eating was. But my, my other goal, and especially as I got going on the book, was to show people who.

have never dealt with this stuff, what it's like inside the head and body of someone for whom this is a great occupation and source of insecurity and trouble and shame. And what I hope it gets across is how overwhelming and constant this sort of stuff can be. You know, there are scenes where Will is just trying to walk down the aisle of a store, and every step, every step, this insecurity and shame is sort of reverberating through his body, and it's with him at all times.

You were talking about, the book sort of making you feel like you were alongside Will, always. Well, I think to be someone for whom this is a great occupation and problem, body image and eating and food, it, it really follows you every waking moment. It's by your side, just like that, something darker and scarier.

and I also wanted to show the ways in which moments that can be Often joyous or positive experiences can get at best sullied and at worst completely ruined by these sorts of preoccupations. So Will's mom surprising him by bringing home pizza and wanting to watch a movie and have a pizza night.

That's a beautiful, fun, wonderful thing. For Will, who is so, um, negatively aware of his body and of his, of his eating and all of this stuff, it becomes sort of like a massive trial and something that leads to a lot more, um, pain and difficulty. So, um, This stuff really sits with you and follows you around at all times.

And it's really overwhelming and really exhausting. And, um, it breaks my heart to think about how many happy and joyous moments of my life were maybe robbed of, of that joyousness and, and good memories. I could have in my head that maybe, uh, got sullied and, and are not good anymore because they were weighted down with this, um, when it comes to bullying.

A lot of kids have asked me about bullying. A lot of kids at school visits have said, have you ever been bullied as an adult? And I have to tell them, I have to say, You know, I'm sorry to tell you, but bullying does not stop after middle school or high school. There are just as many, if not more, adult bullies out there in the world.

And I think bullies are people who are dealing with their own insecurities, and they need to make themselves feel better momentarily by making other people feel worse. And I think bullies are not necessarily insensitive, I think they're sensitive to people's states. They can pick up on people. And I think they often go for the people who are already feeling a little bit not great, are already having a bad day, or are just in a bad place.

And for better or worse, I think sometimes, you know, they can, they can sniff that out, sadly. 

Matthew: Yeah. Well, so let me ask you what, what do we do about it? What do we do? What advice do we have for those kids that may be struggling with, with who they see when they look in the mirror or when they look down or when they, they, um, they, they do a physical check in with themselves.

and also not just then advice for self, but advice for how we can be a friend, a support, um, an ally to others. 

Jarrett: Yeah, so I try to set up an answer to this question in the book with the characters of Will, of Nick Fisher, who is sort of not nice to Will, he's kind of like a bully to Will, especially in the beginning.

And then Marcus, who kind of comes in and is an ally and, and friend. Um, I think what I would say, and what I've been saying to kids, is find someone in your life that you feel comfortable or that you believe you could be comfortable talking to about this stuff. Things are so much scarier, and more unsettling and dangerous when they just exist in our heads.

I think writing them down can be a great first step towards getting control of them. Um, but talking about it is, is really when progress is going to be made. And it can be scary and it will be scary and it will be hard, but every time you open up and share with someone, it's going to get easier and better.

so. It might not be your parents, it might be a friend, it might be a friend's parent, it might be a librarian, it might be a teacher, it might be a counselor, it might be a coach, but find someone in your life who you feel like you could be open with, um, even if the first few times it's really hard. I think that's, Such a great thing for anyone who's going through anything and for friends, for people who feel like their friends might be dealing with something troubling.

I think a great thing we can do is make sure the people around us know how great we think they are. The more we hear positive stories about ourselves, about what we're good at and, and what's good in us, the more likely we're going to believe those stories. And the more likely when we look in the mirror, we're going to tell ourselves those positive stories.

So flood the people you love with positive stories about themselves, point things out, let them know that you they're appreciated and loved for being exactly who they are. 

Matthew: Man, so good. Jared, could you, would you mind please reading to us? Yeah, 

Jarrett: I'm gonna read from the beginning of the book. I always think back to fourth grade.

I was minding my business, hanging out in the hall with Dave and Andrew and Devin when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw a kid, Nick Fisher, standing there. Nick was in my grade and small for his age. In fourth grade, he looked more like a third grader, or even a second grader. And I don't know if it was because of that or because of something else he had going on in his But he always went around already halfway to angry.

Which is why I was kind of worried when I turned around and saw it was Nick who tapped me. That and the fact that he was already scowling. Your fat Nick said, No, no, no, he spat it, that word. He spat it at me like it was the worst one he knew. Like I'd committed a crime and he wanted to make sure I knew I was guilty.

"You're fat", Nick said. And the whole entire hallway fell silent. Everyone was looking, everyone was listening. At first I was too stunned to do a thing. My brain was racing, my heart pounding, but the rest of me, frozen stiff. Then Dave, He set a hand on my shoulder and whispered Will, and for whatever reason that broke the spell, and I got out of there as fast as I could.

Something like that happens to you, something like what happened to me in that hallway with Nick Fisher in fourth grade, and it never leaves your head. The memory might as well be tattooed on your brain. It'll replay again and again and again and again. On bad days of course, but on good days too. On days that had been good until.

Bam. It sneaks up on you. It just pops out out of the blue. And it's not long before you don't even need the Nick Fishers of the world to be there to tell you what they think of you, what the whole entire world thinks of you, that you are less than, you are inferior, you are an animal not worthy of kindness or consideration or respect.

Soon enough, you take care of saying all of that for them. You start thinking just like they do. You start hurling the insults at yourself. You become your own bully. And you do the job better than anyone else possibly could.

Matthew: So then let me ask you, Jared, that I'll see a library full of children tomorrow morning.

Is there a message I can bring to them from you? 

Jarrett: Yes. Um, I've heard you ask this question so many times. And I, thinking about this interview, I had all these answers, but I'm not even going to use any of them. Um, the thing that I think this conversation has made me want to say to kids, and it's something that I've been leaving kids with a lot during my school visits around this book, is that there are people out there for everyone.

And I think in elementary school, in middle school, especially, and in high school, it can be really hard to believe that. I think there are a lot of kids who feel alone, even if they're on a team, or in a club, or surrounded by other people, they can still deep down feel alone. And I hope every kid knows that their people are out there.

I hope they meet them early on in life and they have them forever and ever and ever, but a lot of times, unfortunately, we don't meet our people until we're older. Um, but if I could make every kid trust that the people that appreciate them and love them for exactly who they are and won't want them to ever change or pretend they're something or someone they're not.

If I could convince every kid that those people are out there, a whole lot of them, and they will find them, I think I would sleep better at night because no one should feel alone and no one is alone. Um, and I hope every kid trusts that they will meet their people sooner or later. 

Matthew: I was going to say, you've already said a lot of great things on this call, but that was way to land the plane.

That was beautiful. Jarrett, where can we find you online? 

Jarrett: I am at, uh, JarrettLearner. com and I put a lot of things on there in relation to my books and to creativity in general and share a lot of free goodies for kids and adults. And I'm also on Twitter and Instagram at Jarrett underscore learner and YouTube.

It's my New Year's resolution to be better about putting stuff on YouTube because the kids love it. But I already have on there a lot of frequently asked questions that I answer. I've got a ton of drawing tutorials and, um, some sneak peeks of all my books. And, uh, I'm, I'm doing more all the time as much as I can.


Matthew: Thank you to Jarrett Lerner for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 

You can pick up your own copy of A Work in Progress (Aladdin Paperbacks) wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes.

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And on that note…

Be well. And read on.

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