Book Review: A Work in Progress by Jarrett Lerner
A young boy struggles with body image in this poignant middle grade journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration.
Will is the only round kid in a school full of string beans. 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.
Oof. Just… oof.
Will’s entire sense of self falls apart starting in 4th grade when a classmate meanly tells Will he’s fat. Now. In 2023 and especially as adults, we might want to start in on some lecture that there is nothing inherently bad about the word “fat,” that it’s just a descriptor, that there’s of course nothing wrong with being fat. Maybe we’d say that Will should shake it off, we’d give some pep talk about self-esteem or about letting other people make you feel bad. But Will’s a kid. He doesn’t have this stuff floating around his brain, ready to help him. It’s probably safe to say we’ve all been made to feel horrible by someone, horrible about something we can’t change, some fact of ourselves, some trait. And Will can’t just shake it off. It haunts him, the way the classmate spat “you’re fat” at him. All he seems around him are skinny people. He withdraws himself, pulling away from his friends and really just getting lost in his notebooks full of drawings.
Now three years later, he’s used to hiding, trying to stay invisible, being uncomfortable. And, frankly, and painfully, he seems to hate himself most of the time. He swings between denying himself food and bingeing on food. He’s miserable. And when he meets a potential new friend, Markus, he’s really forgotten how to interact with anyone. He’s so closed off. Markus, who has moved around A LOT and is mostly content just being his own person and not trying to fit in, is surprisingly open with Will, who is not giving him much to work with for friendship. He talks about just embracing yourself, about being a work in progress. That’s stuff Will needs to hear, but he’s not open to absorbing it yet. It’s after a rather dramatic incident that Will finally opens up to his parents about the bullying and how he’s been feeling for so long. After, after beginning to get some help and starting to feel a little better about himself, Will shows signs of starting to come out of his shell.
Exceedingly honest and full of anxiety, anger, and despair, this intimate look at the life and mind of one young boy struggling with body issues and mental health is an affecting read. The message that you are a work in progress and that there’s nothing wrong with that—whatever that looks like—is a great one.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publication date: 05/02/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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