Still a Work in Progress is the latest middle grade novel by Jo Knowles, and follows our main character Noah as he experiences middle school and deals with a family crisis. Noah’s best friends Sam and Ryan are girl-obsessed, Noah worries about the school cat Curly, and he grapples with his feelings about a situation with his older sister Emma and “The Thing That We Don’t Talk About.”
Noah’s friends, teachers, and quirky middle school are vividly rendered. Sam and Ryan are true friends who don’t always get along but are emotional supports for Noah and each other, and teachers like The Tank really get it (which is not always the case in middle grade novels that take the us-vs.-them perspective about teachers). Noah is clearly a talented artist who is becoming more confident and feels like he has a place in his school. It’s home that’s the real problem.
His sister Emma clearly controls his household and often comes off as obnoxious, humorless, and rigid, pushing her opinions and agenda on others. The author particularly shines in showing just how a family member who is mentally ill can take the rest of the family hostage. Noah runs the gamut of emotions, from feeling oppressed by Emma’s increasing militancy about food, to being angry that life is just going on as usual for other people, to scared that he may not be able to tell the difference between the real and pretend Emma. The only solace he finds is in his art.
Knowles also shows us how frightening it can be to have fragile and human parents who are dealing with their own needs and fears and thus cannot adequately address their child’s. Noah and his family experience the helplessness and isolation of feeling out of sync with every else in the wake of a family crisis. The book offers no easy answers or tidy ending, with just a still unrealized hope for the future, the “work in progress” of the title.