“STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS,” by Jo Knowles, Candlewick, Aug. 2, 2016, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 10-14)
For a long time, it seemed like everything coming out in the middle-grade market was firmly entrenched in fantasy/magical genres. Not so anymore. The past year or so has seen a great onslaught of real kids dealing with real situations. “Still a Work in Progress,” by Jo Knowles, is one such book.
Noah lives in a place where everyone knows everyone. His school is so small, they hold a community meeting every week in the school’s old music room, and everyone must attend. Seventh grade is hard enough in an average-sized school, but it’s even harder when you don’t even have the opportunity to hide in a crowd.
Seventh grade is when everything seems to change and it all changes at different rates. Girls are confusing. Homework is boring. And even Noah’s friends are giving in to their hormones.
About the only place Noah feels comfortable is in art class. There, he can mold a piece of clay and disappear into another world.
Home life isn’t much better. Noah’s older sister, Emma, is acting weird again. He thought she’d been doing better ever since the Thing They Don’t Talk About. Now he’s not so sure. Her crazy food rules are becoming stricter and her clothes baggier. Things are not better, and seventh grade will not be normal.
At first, I had a hard time getting into “Still a Work in Progress.” A put it aside a few times before dedicating an uninterrupted half hour to really give it a chance. I’m glad I did. I think my initial struggle cam in part because of the seventh-grade-boy antics that happen early on. They’re not something I can really relate to. But as I settled in, those antics took a backseat to Noah and his story.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up with a sick brother. Often, people would forget that his illness was not just his; it was our family’s. Author Jo Knowles knows that. Throughout “Still a Work in Progress” you see how Emma’s eating disorder affects everyone she comes in contact with, especially her family. Noah harbors guilt for something he has no control over, and he finds himself walking on eggshells not only with his sister but his parents as well.
“Still a Work in Progress” is a realistic look at navigating middle school. Knowles is never heavy-handed or overly sappy. And I appreciated the elements of humor sprinkled throughout. These bright spots lightened what could have been an overly heavy novel. Instead, what you get is a book that celebrates life and all of its complexities.
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