Still A Work In Progress by Jo Knowles
Review by Daniel Charles Ross
One of the hit film releases of late summer so far has been "Eighth Grade," a look back at what tumult kids experience in middle school on the foggy horizon of adulthood. This motivated me to look back at our own Jo Knowles' most-recent novel "Still A Work In Progress" which, natch, occurs in middle school.
I was privileged to read an Advance Reader Copy of this book in July 2016, and I'm acquainted with Jo Knowles from the Mountainview MFA program. Frankly, none of this disclosure holds any special meaning at all, because "Still A Work In Progress" was an extraordinary glimpse into the minds, the lives, and the very existence of middle schoolers whether I liked it or not.
Jo Knowles knows kids. She knows their likes, their loves, their terrors, and even their simple irritations. She knows how parents are sometimes left dumbfounded by family events that overtake them, and that all families matter but all families are not, in fact, created equal.
In her book, main character Noah tries to navigate 8th grade in much the same way a space alien would navigate Times Square, sometimes lost, sometimes befuddled. Middle school is confusing in all respects except when he's in art class, where he excels. Girls are weird but strangely compelling, and schoolmates are sometimes nuttier'n a junkyard dog. Well meaning, of course, but made crazy by–what else?–girls.
Without spoiling anything, it's safe to say Noah's older sister, Emma, is hobbled by a recurrent problem that embroils the entire family. It's during this time that Noah realizes how important his sister is to him, and how unimportant are the other distractions in his world.
What is perhaps most engaging about this story is the compassion Jo exhibits through her characters. The strengths are paradoxical: Noah is strong, his father is weak (as a dad myownself, I was frankly dismayed by Noah's dad's behavior. Don't @ me), and mom is somewhere in the middle. Noah is a success, generally, but his sister is a failure at controlling her debilitating, self-imposed problem. Some of Noah's classmates are mature in relationships; some of his teachers in the small school are friends; and there is a hairless cat mascot roaming around as if it owns the place, because, evidently, it does.
There is laugh-out-loud humor and watery-eyed pathos. There are kids we all went to middle school with and some we wish we had. The story is less a novel than a time machine, and one size fits all.
I have high confidence that middle schoolers will read this evergreen story with recognition (and a little dismay)–as adults will, too. If "Still A Work In Progress" fairly represents the state of middle school today, it hasn't changed much since I was in 8th grade. That makes for a compelling, page-turning story of extraordinary and universal meaning for everyone.
Five stars: One for anyone facing the blank page. One for characters we recognize and embrace as ourselves. One for a descriptive and sensitive deep dive into rarely seen family dynamics and the effect they have on our children. One for the hairless cat as the quirky kind of character you just don't see every day. And one for a Jo Knowles canon that has six other works just as good.
Strongly, unequivocally recommended.
Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—was a Mountainview MFA student in 2015. The thriller that was to be his thesis, Force No One, comes out in the fall.