Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Super Star Interviews: Jarrett Lerner

Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month.

This month it's my pleasure to catching up with the rock star author-illustrator, Jarrett Lerner, and we're chatting all about his new heartfelt, gut-punch of a book, A Work in Progress. Jarrett 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. All of Jarrett’s books are published by Simon & Schuster. He lives with his wife and daughters in Massachusetts. You can visit more of his work here. You can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Always moving forward, one step at a time...

Q: Your new middle grade novel, A Work In Progress, releases this month with Simon & Schuster, and it just might be your most personal yet, tackling important topics like body shaming and disordered eating. Give us the full scoop on your new book—what’s it all about, and how did it come to be.

A: I’ve been trying to write this book–or a version of it–since college. It definitely is my most personal story. It is, in large part, my story. The book, told in poetry, prose, and illustrations–it is formatted as if you are peeking into the main character’s private notebook–is the story of one kid’s journey to self-acceptance and self-love.

In elementary school, Will Chambers is publicly shamed for the size and shape of his body. This trauma is internalized, and over the course of the next few years, he becomes his own bully–and, to paraphrase Will’s own words, he does the job better than anyone else possibly could. Will, essentially, wages war on his body. He develops a number of disordered eating habits and even struggles with body dysmorphia, seeing himself as a monster in a middle school filled with “normal” kids. I won’t give too much away, but things get pretty dark for Will before he meets a kind, caring soul who offers him some insight and guidance on how to find some light.

(Psst! You can get your very own copy here:)

Q: Your graphic novel chapter book series, The Hunger Heroes, also addresses issues surrounding food, but is geared toward a younger audience and has a lighter tone. How do the two projects creatively relate to each other from your point of view as the creator?

A: That’s a wonderful question. Food is the common denominator in my work–it appears, in one way or another, in just about every single one of my books. That’s because it is one of the great themes of my life. I love food. I love cooking and baking it, and I love eating it. It’s one of the things that brings me the greatest joy and pleasure in my life.

But just like Will, I have a complicated relationship with food. Like Will, I struggled as a kid–and still often struggle as an adult–with my body and how and what I eat. I think food appears in so many of my books because it is so important to me.

The Hunger Heroes series investigates situations in which kids want food and are unable to get it. A Work in Progress is about someone who systematically denies themselves it. My EngiNerds series is, in large part, about the importance of and power of food. And my Geeger the Robot series, I hope, creates increased consciousness around the food we eat and the food we waste. Food, food, food! It’s everywhere. And not I’ve gotten myself hungry...

Q: A Work in Progress is a very intense read. The reader is often carried along by main character, Will’s, emotional inner dialogue. How did you, as the author-illustrator, embrace the emotional flow of the story, while also working to control & direct it?

A: Wow–what a question! It’s a hard one to answer. Because I think the truest, most honest answer is...I don’t know. This book was a bear. A wild, often angry bear. And working on the book was kind of like a wrestling match between me and that bear. The work of controlling and directing the emotional flow of the story, as you put it–it took me a longer and was harder than any other book I’ve ever wrote.

And I couldn’t have done it (maybe this is the key) without a team. My wife. My agent. My editor. I relied on them regularly. I’d tap out of the wrestling match and share with them, and they’d sort of help me get some perspective, see if what I was doing was working–if I was, you know, actually taming the bear or just temporarily subduing it, only to have it rear up with even more anger and energy.

Okay: I’ll drop the metaphor now. But truly, if it was just me, if I hadn’t had a team of incredible, caring, brilliant people around me, I never would’ve finished this book. I earnestly tried to write it, first back in college, and then probably half a dozen times between then and now, and because I hadn’t had that team around me, I failed. I gave up. And I am fairly certain I would’ve given up this time, too, had I not had the people I am lucky enough to have in my work and personal life.

Q: What advice would you give fellow author-illustrators looking to develop similar projects that tackle tough issues, while also bringing in an autobiographical component?

A: Be kind to yourself. Take it slow. And make sure to take advantage of whatever support system you’ve got in place. I didn’t expect the creation of this book to be as tough for me as it was. It was extremely challenging–both the crafting of the story, but also the emotional and psychological toll that crafting took on me. Sitting in and sifting through past trauma–it’s not fun. It’s hard, rough work. You can’t just do it for a couple hours, then get up from your desk and emerge untouched by it. It clings to you. Hangs around. And it wasn’t until I recognized that, until I made a conscious effort to address and lessen the negative effects of it all, that the process really became bearable. So, yeah–especially if you’ve never worked on a project like it before, give yourself plenty of grace, and don’t dive into it haphazardly.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from A Work in Progress?

A: I hope they have a lot of takeaways from the book. And one of my favorite things about making books is that their readers always take things away from them that I couldn’t have ever anticipated. But if I had to pick one thing, I hope it’s this: that we are all works in progress. We are all just doing our darnedest to be our best, truest selves. And the more we can acknowledge, recognize, and respect that about both ourselves and others–the more grace we can give both ourselves and others as we all continue our individual journeys–the better.

Q: Describe your most perfect summer vacation.

A: I’m fortunate that I’ve gotten to take my most perfect summer vacation a handful of times! My family often heads up to Maine for a week or two during the summer. We rent a place close to the beach, and spend our days by the water, getting ice cream, cooking and eating meals outdoors, taking things nice and slow and never having too much of a strict plan.

Thank you so much, Jarrett, for chatting with us here at Bird Meets Worm! Congratulations on A Work in Progress!