Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Okay for Now

In 2005, Gary D. Schmidt's LIZZY BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY received a Newbery Honor. Many children's literature enthusiasts at the time cried foul, feeling it deserved a Medal instead. In 2008, Schmidt's THE WEDNESDAY WARS also received a Newbery Honor. The outcry in this case, was even more intense. The novel had an enormous following. Suffice it to say, Schmidt's WEDNESDAY WARS companion novel, OKAY FOR NOW, had some major Newbery buzz long before it was even released.

In OKAY FOR NOW, 14 year-old Doug Swieteck has just moved to Marysville, NY so his belligerent father could take a job at a paper mill, after losing his original job in a fit of rage. Doug feels out of place in "stupid Marysville." Doug feels out of place in his own family. His father thinks of him as a "chump". His oldest "jerk" brother Lucas, is off getting "beat up by Vietcong" while his other (unnamed at first) "jerk" older brother regularly abuses him at home. He loves his mother but feels terrible for her. It isn't until Doug meets Lil Spicer, that he begins to feel more at home in Marysville. Lil is a spunky girl who gets Doug a job with her father delivering groceries. Lil and Doug strike up a friendship and she introduces Doug to the Marysville Public Library which in turn, introduces Doug to the work of John James Audubon. Through Audubon's drawings of birds, Doug begins to find the courage to make something more for himself. If only his father wouldn't make it so difficult for him.

Doug Swieteck is the type of narrator you pay attention to. He's blunt and in-your-face rude at times, but he's also endearing. Doug's voice is the most impressive thing about Schmidt's novel. He often puts the reader on the spot. "So what?" He challenges the reader to pay attention to what he says. Many times he'll even check and see if you're still paying attention. There's a few brilliant examples of this. At one point in the story, Doug is learning how to draw a Large-Billed Puffin's foot so that it appears underwater. Just when he begins to "get it" his brother bursts onto the scene, making fun of his drawing before destroying it. "Can't you even draw a foot right," he says to Doug. "It looks like it's underwater." The scene plays out for a while longer and ends with a smile plastered on Doug's face, even though he should be upset with his brother. "If you were paying attention back there," Doug tells the reader, "you'd know why."

At another point in the story Doug is being talked down to by his school principal, Principal Peattie. Principal Peattie says something so defeating to Doug, that Doug is too distraught to even repeat it in his narrative. Many references are made to what Principal Peattie said throughout the chapter but the reader is left hanging. Then many pages later, when Doug's brother Lucas returns from Vietnam and the family finds themselves in the midst of a terrible protest, Doug reveals to us what Principal Peattie said, and it's timing could not be more impeccable.

I would say that Schmidt's one fault with OKAY FOR NOW is that he does try and cram a lot into this novel. And most of it, primarily the second half of the book, feels a bit rushed. I'm not suggesting Schmidt should have added even more to his 360 page story. I just can't help but believe that some of this could've been trimmed back. A somewhat unbelievable sidestory of Doug and Lil being cast in a Broadway musical requires some suspension of disbelief as does many other instances near the book's dramatic conclusion.

But Schmidt makes this suspension of disbelief easy. I believed every word Doug said. I believed in the way each plot thread was closed up and all the character transformations rang true to me. Even Schmidt's "villains" were allowed page space to grow and show depth. Mrs. Merriam the librarian; Coach Reed the "so-called" gym teacher; Principal Peattie; Doug's brothers; and even Doug's father. I also love the way that Doug compares many of these characters (as well as his feelings) to Audubon's bird drawings. Whereas THE WEDNESDAY WARS featured Shakespeare, OKAY FOR NOW introduces readers to Audubon, and the inclusion is terrific.

It's been a long time since I've read a book this engaging. In my opinion, it firmly lives up to the hype.

Final Grade: A

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