Friday, August 12, 2011

Okay for Now

2012 Newbery buzz began about Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now in pretty much the same breath the 2011 winners were announced. Schmidt has had two books win Newbery Honors in the past. I haven't read either of those, this is my first experience with Schmidt's writing, which is unequivocally deserving of the praise and buzz this book has received.
Synopsis (from publisher's website):
As a fourteen-year-old who just moved to a new town, with no friends and a louse for an older brother, Doug Swieteck has all the stats stacked against him. As Doug struggles to be more than the "skinny thug" that his teachers and the police think him to be, he finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer—a fiery young lady who smelled like daisies would smell if they were growing in a big field under a clearing sky after a rain. In Lil, Doug finds the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a whole town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Together, they find a safe haven in the local library, inspiration in learning about the plates of John James Audubon’s birds, and a hilarious adventure on a Broadway stage.

Okay for Now is set from the summer of 1968 to the summer of 1969. America is embroiled in Vietnam and launching the Apollo missions. So much tragedy and great potential at one time. How do you convey the aspect of such a time? By telling the story of one boy, a boy whose life is tragic and yet full of wonderful potential. And if you are a good writer you convey through this the universal human experience that any reader in any time will understand, because living is tragic yet contains wonderful potential in every moment. Schmidt is an author who not only can do this, but makes it appear easy at the same time.

Doug is a character with a lot going against him. An abusive father, a bullying older brother, being the new kid town, overcoming people's misconceptions of him, overcoming his misconceptions of himself. There is a lot going on with Doug and it is voiced perfectly. His voice is incredibly genuine. Sometimes bewildered, cocky, confused, belligerent, scared, hopeful. And all that can be on one page. I grow weary of reading book after book written in first person. Many of them sound the same. Not this one. Doug becomes a real person through his voice and, I have to say, I haven't enjoyed having a character's voice in my head this much since I read The Thief. (Not that Doug and Gen are in anyway comparable, because they aren't. That is just how real Doug came to be in my mind.) I like the way Doug jumps topics too. He will be telling one thing, which will make him think of another, and off he goes. He shies away from revealing too much or getting into emotions. Very typical eighth grade boy. Doug made me laugh and he made me cry. He made me want to shake him and hug him.

Through Doug's story you become acquainted with the people whose lives touch his. His family, teachers, librarians, customers from his job, and his friends all have real presence in the story. These are not a cast of quirky characters offering comic relief or a quaint way to drop in life lessons. They are average people living average lives in an average late 60's small town. Living their ordinary lives they touch Doug in extraordinary ways, as he does them. And I came to love every single one of them.

Each chapter of the book is introduced by a print from John Audubon's Birds of America and the chapter title is the name of the bird. Doug's story is tied to that book and those birds which are unleashing his artistic talents. They form an intricate part of the plot and the descriptions of the characters. They bind the whole story together. I am in awe of the artistry with which Schmidt pulled that all off. He doesn't try to be subtle about it and that is part of its brilliance.

Often in MG literature an element of the melodramatic is added to spice the story up, because we all know middle schoolers love their melodrama. Schmidt didn't go there. He has some dramatic moments but they never become melodramatic. There are scenes that should have been corny, but aren't. It's all in the way Schmidt presents it so beautifully.

And then there is the ending which is perfect and fits in with the whole so well. In a way it hints at tragedy. In a way it is full of glorious and wonderful potential. And hope. The eternal hopefulness of youth, which is powerful even when it is shadowed by fear.

I loved every moment spent with Doug and the citizens of Marysville, NY. I would recommend this book to any reader.

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