Please tell us about A Work in Progress.
Here’s how my publisher describes it:
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 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.
Why was this a story you needed to tell?
I’ve been trying to tell this story for years and years — more than a decade, actually — but never really thought I would publish it if I ever managed to get it out of me in a way that felt authentic and complete. The story is largely autobiographical and about what’s probably been the toughest period of my life. Writing and drawing have always been my way of organizing my thoughts and processing my feelings, and I think telling this story was the only way I could sort of “resolve” all these difficult experiences in my heart and mind. But as I got closer and closer to getting this story out of me and onto paper in a way that felt “right,” I realized how desperately I needed a book like it when I was a kid, and the desire to give kids the book grew and grew. The idea of publishing the story and then touring the country talking about it was terrifying. But I knew I had to do it because I truly felt like we needed a book just like it on shelves.
A Work in Progress is a hybrid verse novel and art journal, a form that gives readers a comprehensive look into Will’s world. Can you talk to us about the process of creating this book through the form the piece has taken?
I mentioned above how long I’ve been trying to get this story out of me in a way that felt “right.” Throughout the process, I tried everything imaginable. I told the story in first person, third person, even second person. I told it in the past tense, the present tense, even the future tense. I told it from one kid’s perspective, then another’s, and then tried to use a whole bunch of perspectives all at once. NOTHING resulted in a draft that felt authentic and complete. Not until I came up with the idea of framing the book as if it were a notebook — and a notebook just like the ones I kept when I was my protagonist’s age — did things really start to feel right. I’ve always used words and pictures as two tools to get ideas out of my head, switching back and forth between them as I want and need. Back when I was a kid doing it, I didn’t know what “free verse” was — I just sort of stumbled upon it, as I wanted to break free of the pressure to form perfect sentences or fill up a whole page. Free verse, to me, has a lot in common with drawing. You’re using words to deliver information to and bring about something within the reader, but you’re also using them as marks or blocks on a page. It takes a long time to make these hybrid sorts of books, as it compounds the number of decisions you have to make throughout the story. But for me, it’s the most exciting way to tell stories, and I always feel like the end result is closer to the perfect-yet-impossible-to-reach vision I have for the project.
This story is heartfelt and raw. I’m sure it took tremendous vulnerability on your part to create. How did you go there? How did your editor help you dig deeper?
I went there slowly. It took a lot of work to reach a draft that has any resemblance to the one you see in the final book. I think each attempt to revise and better tell the story got me deeper and deeper and closer to where I needed to be. It was labor-intensive. I went through the book way, way more than I ever have any before. And along the way, I balked plenty of times at the prospect of diving in again. My editor was amazing at asking me the right questions and making the right suggestions to urge me on, all while simultaneously giving me plenty of support and encouragement and letting me know that I could — and SHOULD — take my time and take breaks. All the other books I’ve worked on didn’t have an emotional toll like this one. I had to learn that I really needed to put the book away and recharge in between revisions. I had to learn to be patient and give myself plenty of grace. And especially at the end, I focused a lot on my reader (I always try to do so while working on my books). That kept me focused and sane — thinking of the kid that needed this book, like I needed it, and how they were now actually going to get it, and how I wanted to make it as true and real and therefore helpful to them as possible.
Was an art director involved with the revision process, or did you do all your work with an editor? If you worked with both, can you talk a bit about what that was like?
YES! I always work with an editor and an art director, and both are absolutely crucial to the work. Especially on this book, my art director did so, so much. She pushed my art just as my editor pushed my words and helped me develop the art just as my editor helped me develop the story. My art director helped design the entire interior, and an illustrated novel in verse — I mean, I can’t think of a more demanding, design-wise, type of book. We went back and forth billions of times about indents, dingbats, the sizes and placement of doodles and scribbles. The book is supposed to look loose and natural and organic and incidental, like Will is just pouring himself into this private notebook, not actively trying to tell anyone a story. To accomplish that, though — I have never worked so hard. There is care, thought, intention — and usually hours of intense discussion — behind every little detail on these pages.
What do you hope kids take from your book?
I hope kids see and feel and never forget that, whatever difficult things they are going through, they aren’t alone, and that it can get better — that it WILL get better. I also hope it causes them all to be more empathetic and gentle with those around them. Every day, we cross paths with so many people, and even if we only appear in their lives briefly, we can have a profound impact on them — and we have the choice and power to make that impact either positive or negative. I hope they choose the former.