An Inside Look with Jarrett Lerner
*Season #SIX (Summer 2019)
How did you come to know Will?
Will is, in a lot of ways, me. Not exactly, of course. The book is a work of fiction. But all fiction contains truth, and this work of fiction contains a great deal of my truth. While the specifics of Will's situation and the timeline of his journey differ from mine, the emotional roller coaster he goes on is one I rode.
What do you think is his most admirable quality?
I think, even in his darkest moments, Will contains a trace of hope, and that is enormously admirable. In those darkest moments, his hope is certainly misdirected. But it's there. And by the end of the book, that hopeful side of him has been redirected, aimed at healthier ends. That's what I tried to make sure really shone forth from him. Because as the story closes, things aren't wrapped up nice and neat. Will is still hurting. Still struggling. But I think he's learned -- and truly believes -- that tomorrow can be better, and the day after that even better, and so on and so forth.
Is there anything you wish he would have changed or done differently in his story?
It broke my heart, over and over again, to see Will descend into the darker depths that he reaches in the book. And while I wish he hadn't had to plummet quite so far down, I think, in his case, it was necessary. More than I hope anything about Will, I hope young readers of his story will be able to glean some of his hard-fought wisdom without having to do so much of the "hard fighting," if that makes sense. I hope, if they recognize any of themselves in Will, they can find some bright, hopeful light to cling to before things get too dark.
What do you think Will can offer to other children that are experiencing similar situations to what he went through?
I hope that Will can offer hope. That he can serve as an example -- at first a warning of sorts, but also, ultimately, a role model. I hope that, through experiencing his journey in this book, kids won't have to struggle and suffer with the same things. That, like I said in response to the question above, they'll gain some of Will's hard-fought wisdom without having to do quite so much of the "hard fighting" themselves.
How did you research Will and the circumstances he found himself in?
As I mentioned in response to the first question, much of Will's story is my own. On that front, there was very little research done. However, I did a lot of research-like reading as I was working on the book. I read a great deal about other people's journey's with the issues Will struggles with, and also studied many formalistically adventurous Middle Grade books (other novels in verse, and also other heavily illustrated, journal-like books) as I figured out the best possible way to tell Will's story.
Do you and Will share any similarities?
Many. The good, the bad, and the ugly. But also, on our best days, the wonderful and beautiful, too. At least I hope.
What was the hardest scene to write about him?
The scenes in which he is humiliated or made extremely anxious around other kids were super hard, but without a doubt the toughest scene was the one that occurs about a third of the way through, when Will rushes home, locks himself in his bathroom, strips down, and confronts his body in the mirror. That's a big turning point in the story. It's the moment we see his discomfort with and dislike of his body turn into something larger and darker. Standing there, staring at himself in the glass, he begins to hate his body. From that point on, it's his enemy, and Will essentially wages war against it.
Who do you think was his biggest supporter and why?
In the end, I hope, it's himself. And I hope that's something my readers take away from Will's story. That you can appreciate and love yourself while, at the same time, acknowledging that you're not perfect, that you still struggle with this or that. We're all works in progress, right? If we can acknowledge that about ourselves, and respect that about everybody else we interact with, we can hopefully become our own biggest supporters -- and at the same time be bigger, better supporters of everybody else.
Why do you think young people judge others for their appearance, skin color, or what they wear; instead of basing their opinions on getting to know the real “inside” person first?
Well, for better and often for worse, one another's appearances are what we see first. And with the majority of people, appearances are all we ever really know. We can't befriend and get to know in a deep, penetrating way every single person we encounter. So we form our idea of all those people based largely if not solely on their appearance. And the human brain -- it thrives on knowledge. On knowing. It's not easy to remind yourself, every time you come across someone, that you really don't know the first thing about them and what might be going on inside of them. This, combined with the fact that our world and our country's culture specifically is hyper-focused on body and diet and consumption, and you've got a bit of a perfect storm. I don't think it's kids' fault -- they are prompted, even trained to judge others based on their appearance. They are inundated with messages -- from movies and TV, from social media, from their family and friends -- to do exactly this. I think it's getting better, though. I think, generally speaking, kids are more sensitive and aware of all of this, and also more open-minded and accepting of differences and diversity.
What do you think Will is doing at the present time?
I hope he's smiling, whatever he's doing. I hope he's happy. Or at least content. Maybe he's skateboarding. Maybe he's found a local park and met some other skaters there who he's become friends or at least friendly acquaintances with. Or maybe he's drawing. Filling up another notebook with, hopefully, happier thoughts and feelings and art.
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