Still a Work in Progress
Author: Jo Knowles
Published August 2nd, 2016 by Candlewick Press
Summary: In a return to middle-grade fiction, master of perspectives Jo Knowles depicts a younger sibling struggling to maintain his everyday life while coping with his sister’s secret struggle.
Noah is just trying to make it through seventh grade. The girls are confusing, the homework is boring, and even his friends are starting to bug him. Not to mention that his older sister, Emma, has been acting pretty strange, even though Noah thought she’d been doing better ever since the Thing They Don’t Talk About. The only place he really feels at peace is in art class, with a block of clay in his hands. As it becomes clear through Emma’s ever-stricter food rules and regulations that she’s not really doing better at all, the normal seventh-grade year Noah was hoping for begins to seem pretty unattainable. In an affecting and realistic novel with bright spots of humor, Jo Knowles captures the complexities of navigating middle school while feeling helpless in the face of a family crisis.
Review: What I am always amazed by when I read a book by Jo Knowles is her ability to tell the truth about our world, and this book once again fits this description. Jo has a way of making her characters ones that are so real that you can imagine them walking into a school and know exactly which kids they’d hang out with. Noah and his friends could definitely be middle school students at my school. Her stories always seem to include a bit of humor (see: hairless cat on the cover) while never taking away from the seriousness of the book’s topic. The emotions, specifically pain or sadness, she portrays through her characters radiates out of the pages, so the reader can feel it.
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This is an important book to have available for students to read. Although the main story is about Noah fitting into middle school, it is also about dealing with pain and anger and sadness and still having to live. This book needs to be in classroom libraries and should be booktalked so students are aware of its brilliance.
Discussion Questions: What makes the art room such a special place for Noah?; Why does Noah and his family not talk about Emma’s problems? Did not talking about it end up being hurtful or helpful?; Noah’s school is a bit different than traditional schools. How does his school differ from yours?; What does the title mean in reference to Noah? Emma? Their family? Other characters?; How did Emma’s experience with Lord of the Flies spiral out of control?
Flagged Passages: “Community meetings happen once a week. Everyone in the school has to go, including the teachers. The Community Room used to be the music room, but our town had budget cuts and they cut the music program. The wars are painted green, and old couches donated by various families line the walls so that if we’re all sitting on them, we form a circle/square. The problem is that there are more students than seats on couches, so if you get to a Community Meeting late, you’re stuck sitting on a beanbag or on the floor in front of the couch sitters. The beanbags are mysteriously sticky and smell like dirty sheets. The floor is cold and kind of gross because it doesn’t get washed very much. In either case, you have to sit in front of the people on the couch which means you are close to their feet, which means, depending on who you end up in front of, you are probably going to have a miserable hours.” (p. 9-10)
“‘Sara is new to vaganism,’ Emma explains.
‘Is your family vegan, too?’ my mom asks.
‘No, just me. My parents are all stressed-out about it. They think I’m going to become anemic or something.’
Emma sighs dramatically, as if to say, So typical.
My mom clears her throat uncomfortably. ‘We were worried about Emma, too. But she’s very aware of her dietary needs. Right, Emma?’
‘Kind of hard not to be with you and Dad obsessing about everything I eat,’ Emma says sarcastically.
My mom doesn’t answer, just grips the steering wheel tighter. Sara shifts in her seat awkwardly, probably remember the time a few years ago that no one talks about. Even though she and Emma weren’t good friends then, everyone know about the Thing That Happened.” (p. 29-30)
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3 thoughts on “Still a Work in Progress by Jo Knowles”
There’s been a number of great books coming about kids whose older siblings are going through major challenges (“Sunny Side Up”, “The Seventh Wish”, “The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen). It’s wonderful to see stories that tackle these complex family dynamics with sensitivity and even a sense of warm humour. Can’t wait to read this one.