I caught up with Jarrett Lerner who is one of our many wonderful featured authors at the 14th Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20th. He is a prolific children’s author, having published five books in the past eight months: The Hunger Heroes: Snack Cabinet Sabotage (October 2022), Nat the Cat Takes a Nap (January 2023), Goes for Gold: Geeger the Robot (April 2023), Nat the Cat Takes a Bath (May 2023), and A Work in Progress (May 2023). His other middle grade series, EngiNerds and his unpublished eBook Knights of the Kids’ Table round out his book family.
A Work in Progress is about a “boy who struggles with body image in this poignant middle grade journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration.” I am so thankful that Jarrett wrote this book – there are too many kids who need to read it because they are struggling with their negative self-image and self-talk. Both the kids who say mean words to others, and the ones who are the recipient of those mean words – they need to read this book. And discuss it. Together. He shared a powerful message in a very accessible way.
Jarrett will be presenting A Work in Progress in a panel discussion with Janae Marks (On Air with Zoe Washington), and John David Anderson (The Greatest Kid in the World) in the Jim Henson Pavilion, beginning at 1:15 pm (yours truly will be moderating the conversation).
He will also present his graphic novel chapter book, The Hunger Heroes: Snack Cabinet Sabotage with Jonathan Roth (Rover & Speck: This Planet Rocks!) in the Graphic Novels and Workshops Pavilion beginning at 11:15 am.
I hope you enjoy my interview with the kind-hearted (and witty) Jarrett Lerner.
Who encouraged or inspired you to become an author/illustrator?
I was first inspired by becoming a reader, and finding books I loved and connected with. That’s still one of my greatest inspirations. And when I finally realized that I actually COULD attempt to become an author-illustrator — like, as a JOB — I had boatloads of encouragement from my family and friends. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done and continue to do without them.
What is your writing space like? Your art studio?
I’ve got a space at home that I use. It’s full of natural look, great books, and my kids’ artwork. And while I love creating there, I also make sure not to get TOO attached to it or any of the conditions I can reliably create there. To have a job doing what I do, I need to be able to be productive and occasionally even creative on demand, and often that means when I’m AWAY from my studio space. That being said, I love it there.
What do you love most about the cover art and illustrations in your current books?
The cover art for a book is the illustration that you usually spend the most time and energy and thought on — and that you usually discuss most extensively with your publishing team. I always tell kids that the advice “don’t judge a book by its cover” is great advice for everything BUT books. Because we put so, so, SO much time and energy into making those images just right, so you’ll get a very particular idea about what the book’s going to offer you. I’m pleased with all my covers, and think they do a good job letting readers know what’s in store for them if they actually pick up the book and give it a read.
Can you speak to your creative process? Do you write the words first, or sketch out the panels or pages?
Regarding my process — no matter how the book looks in the end, it always begins in a notebook, and I both write and draw. My first drafts are a mess, a mix of words and pictures, usually only half-formed. It’s an “idea dump,” and once I’ve gotten everything out of my head related to the story, the characters, and the world they inhabit, I go back through the notebook and try to clean up the mess, tidy it into something that looks like a story — or even just scenes or moments. From there, I’ll try to put together a draft, and at that point I usually get a sense of how the story will best be told — mostly text and occasional illustrations, as a graphic novel, or as some kind of hybrid. For me, that’s how I make the decision: I choose the form that will tell the story in the best way for my intended readers.
Do you have a discussion guide for A Work in Progress, and if so, could you share with me?
The AWIP Educator Guide just became available, and was created by Carrie Friday, a library media specialist in Florida.
Your two books are very different – for each of them, who is the reader you are writing for? Please describe them, and what you hope that the reader will learn.
They are different, but they have similarities for me, too. I try to make books that kids both want and need. My youngest readers, who are just learning how to read, are going to want and need something different than my older readers, who are in middle school or high school. But focusing on my readers, giving them what they want and also what I believe they need (even if they don’t realize it!), is what guides me and has yet to steer me wrong.
In the sketch of yourself on the author’s page and the dust jacket you look so serious or troubled – maybe even a little angry, but in every picture of you I see on social media, you have a big, happy smile. Why did you sketch yourself that way? What message are you giving us?
A Work in Progress is largely autobiographical, and toward the end, Will talks about how he still has bad days, days when he isn’t doing all that great. I think that’s an important point to make (I explore it in my third Geeger the Robot book as well). There is a lot of intentionality behind my author portrait for the book, including that expression. I wanted my readers to know that while I’m usually happy and full of positive energy, I still have bad days, like everyone — days when, like Will, I just want to hide in a hoodie and stay in bed.
Do you think there will be a second book about Will?
I’m not sure! I’d like to revisit Will, a couple years down the road. Lately, I’ve actually been thinking about writing a story from one of the minor A Work in Progress character’s perspectives. We’ll see!
What is something that you really want your readers to know about you?
I have lots of hobbies and passions that have nothing to do with books or making them, and I think that’s hugely important if you want a career making books. I love skateboarding, I love cooking and going out to eat, and more recently, I’ve fallen in love with Formula 1 racing.
Which book review or award has been most meaningful to you?
The reading association of my home state, Massachusetts, once gave me an award for being a “champion of literacy” in our community and the country at large, and that was deeply meaningful and hugely rewarding to receive.
What are you most looking forward to at our book festival?
Meeting all the young readers!
- A Work in Progress Educator’s Guide
- Blissfully Bookish: Author Jarrett Lerner on Connecting through Personal Struggles
- Featured KidLit – A WORK IN PROGRESS by Jarrett Lerner
- Jarrett Lerner’s Website & Activity Pages
- Kirkus Review: A Work In Progress
- Instagram: @Jarrett_Lerner
- Twitter: @Jarrett_Lerner