Interview with Jarrett Lerner, Author and Illustrator of A Work in Progress
I always like to start with the short and sweet: Give us the elevator pitch for A Work in Progress.
Here it is, straight from my publisher:
Will is the only round kid in a school full of
thin 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.
Confession: Art is a lifelong love, and I just started tackling digital art. I love your IG videos that break drawing down into simple shapes (often the shapes of letters). They’re helping me to see basic shapes in my own projects! What's one thing about drawing you wish all kids knew?
I wish all kids – and ADULTS – knew that drawing is a skill like any other. The only way to get good at it is to practice. There’s this widespread myth that you are either born able to draw or not. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. One of the missions of my work is to get EVERYONE drawing more. The visual language is the very first one we learn, and I think every human being contains a natural urge to express themselves in it. It’s an incredibly powerful thing. But I think the thing that blocks so many people – kids and adults – is that they think they have to get it “right” on the first try. I have never, ever, EVER gotten a drawing “right” on the first try. No illustrator has. The only things I can draw well are the things I’ve practiced drawing over and over. At my school visits, I spend a lot of time on this. I tear back the curtain, so to speak, letting kids know that creativity is ALWAYS a process. Every drawing in one of my books – and every sentence or line or verse, as well – is the product of dozens, even hundreds of revisions. The more we can accept and embrace the process over the product – the more we can focus on the value and joy of the work in and of itself – the more fun and productive it will all be.
I love the scribbles and the sketches throughout. Sometimes, it's the imperfect that's interesting. That has personality. Is that part of your message?
In this book, for sure. Perfection is impossible. I have to learn that as a creator with every single book I make, and it was one of the most important lessons I learned as a human being. I wanted to make sure you saw Will learning this lesson, processing things as the story went along, and the scribbles and the fonts and the variety of types of art included all serve, I hope, to give the book an illusion of looseness. In reality, though, this book was the most painstaking I’ve ever made. In addition to every other bit of the book, the size and shape and placement of every one of those scribbles was very intentional.
What was the process like? Did the illustrations come first, or the text? Or did they both come together?
I always start my projects longhand, usually in a composition notebook. What I put in those notebooks, especially at the beginning of a project, resemble “sketchnotes” – a jumbled up mix of words and pictures. I see both writing and drawing as tools, and whichever one can more efficiently and effectively get an idea out of my head and onto the page at any given moment is the one I’ll use. Once I’ve got a draft (or, more often, a collection of notes and lists and doodles and drawings that feel somewhat cohesive), I’ll try to figure out what form best suits this story. Will it be most powerfully, excitingly, enjoyable told using just words? Or words and occasionally spot illustrations? Or should it be told using comics? Or should it be something else – what my editor and I have come to call a “hybrid” – something that borrows from a variety of forms, employing whatever best suits the story at any given moment, so you never know what you’re going to get from one page to another. Once I’ve reached this point, once I’ve got a sense of the best form for a project, I’ll put together a new draft, sticking to the rules of the form (unless, of course, the story dictates that I break them!).
I'm also intrigued by the placement of words on the page, the way the word FAT shows up in big thick letters. The word itself is fat. Often, here, the text works like an illustration. The placement of the text on the paper, and the repetition really does an incredible job of portraying that idea of becoming one’s own worst bully. How did you come to decide on the layout? (Notebook paper lines, etc.?)
I’ve been trying to tell this story for years – over a decade, actually. I first started in college. And I tried EVERYTHING. Every tense. Every point of view. All sorts of formats. But nothing ever felt authentic enough. Nothing ever felt complete. Nothing ever felt “right.” Not until I finally landed on the idea of framing the story as it were being told “incidentally” in the private notebook of the main character. Once I landed on that, the story finally started coming out in a way that felt accurate and full.
Regarding the use of words as illustrations – that’s certainly purposeful, as a theme of the book is the power of words, and the role our words can play in the shaping of our identities and the state of our self-esteem. I’m also a longtime lover of lettering, and work hand-lettering into my projects as much as possible.
Did you keep a journal growing up? Do you still have it? I'd think it'd be a goldmine for this project.
I did! And I actually hope the format of this book encourages kids to keep notebooks of their own, whether they call them journals or diaries or sketchbooks or whatever. I recently saw a study, and it found that writing things down that are weighing heavily on a person’s mind actually reduces their stress and improves their mood. I don’t think I have any of my old journal’s too, and even if I did, I’m not sure I would’ve looked at them. I think it could be risky, and could’ve kept me from feeling fully free to do what I needed to do for the sake of the story. However, I still remember what those journals looked like – and they looked a great deal like Will’s notebook. And as I said above, framing the book as a notebook like the ones I used to keep was the breakthrough I needed to get this story out of me.
How did your own middle grade experience factor into this piece? Did you often feel like a Work in Progress yourself? Struggle to keep the balance on the skateboard (metaphorically speaking)?
This book is mostly autobiographical. The only things that are really different are the timeline and the cast of characters. My story took place over a much longer period of time, and instead of having just one Markus, I had a whole group of friends. But compressing Will’s crisis and reducing the size of the cast of characters made for, I think, a much more powerful story.
What's the one thing you want readers to take from the book?
There are LOTS of things I hope they take away, but I guess if I had to pick just one, it’d be for them to know that they are worthy – worthy of kindness, consideration, compassion, understanding, love, and respect – and to know it with so much certainty that, should they encounter anyone who tries to make them feel like they are NOT worthy, they will be able to overcome it.
What's next for you?
I’ve always got a lot of projects going on. I’ve got a slew of new early readers in the works, as well as two new chapter book series launching in the next year or two. Beyond that, I’ve got a pair of exciting Middle Grade projects in the earlier stages of development.
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 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. In addition to writing, drawing, and visiting schools and libraries across the country, Jarrett co-founded and co-organizes the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects, and regularly spearheads fundraisers for various reading- and book-related causes. He is also the founder and operator of Jarrett Lerner’s Creator Club. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his wife and daughters in Massachusetts.