When I began hearing Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now mentioned over and over as a potential Newbery winner this early in the year, I can’t say I was very surprised. After all, he’s won the Newbery Honor Award twice (as well as a Printz Honor and other awards). I think you would be foolish to count him out. But I am going on record as saying if this book doesn’t win the Newbery (and possibly a Printz Award too), I’d be very surprised. It is a multi-layered narrative, combining history, family, coming-of-age and a little bit of romance and mystery. It also bridges the divide between Newbery and Printz age groups gracefully.
Schmidt takes a character from The Wednesday Wars (Doug Swieteck) and moves him from Long Island to Marysville, New York. Doug, who is going to start eighth grade, comes home one day to find out that his father has been fired after a fight with the owner of the lumber business where he works. In Marysville, Doug’s father has a friend who can get him work at the paper mill, so off they move. Doug’s father is a tough man, the kind who blusters, thinks he knows better than anyone else and isn’t afraid to let you know it. He is a drinker and there is abuse in Doug’s household. He is capable of amazing cruelty to his family, which the Swieteck boys see every day. Each of them deal with this differently, and Doug mostly handles it by keeping his head down or disappearing when it’s a “wrong day”.
When they get to Marysville, Doug happens across the Marysville Free Public Library on a Saturday, the only day it’s open each week. And it’s there that he sees the most amazing picture of a bird he has ever seen. A librarian, Mr. Powell, tells Doug the book is Audubon’s Birds of America and Doug is mesmerized. His regular visits to the bird portraits in a glass case lead to Mr. Powell teaching Doug how to draw. He practices his skills using the portraits of the birds. As Doug learns the techniques Audubon used to create the birds, he also learns to observe closely and to analyze exactly what makes the drawings so compelling. The chapters are all named after birds Doug sees and draws, and I found it very helpful that reproductions of the plates are included in Schmidt’s book. Many of the birds were not familiar to me, and as Doug describes their magnificence, readers can go back and see what he is describing for themselves.
There are so many tightly-woven details that make up Doug’s story, and I don’t want to ruin the experience for you. Suffice to say that every story Doug retells and every detail included in this narrative counts. Doug’s oldest brother, Lucas, is serving in the Vietnam War when the novel begins, helping to set the historical period. But what I believe is one of Schmidt’s greatest skills is his ability to totally craft a historical era, along with period details, but allow the narrative’s themes to be very contemporary in feel and tone. Doug is also telling the story to the reader, which feels more contemporary to me. His tough-guy demeanor (learned at home) gradually gives way to a different way of talking to the reader as the novel moves on, and it is a good indicator of the changes in Doug.
One of the themes in this coming-of-age novel is judgment and how that can be accurate or inaccurate. The Swieteck boys are perceived as no-good troublemakers when they arrive. Or at least, the middle brother, Christopher, is. He is repeatedly questioned by the police about a series of burglaries. It does seem as if there is some evidence pointing to his involvement, but Christopher always insists he is innocent. In the meantime, Doug is judged by his teachers, the principal and other townspeople just because he is the brother of a troublemaker.
Another theme in this book is faith – not the religion type of faith, but faith in Doug. Because as the year goes on, more and more townspeople begin to show faith in Doug. It begins with Mr. Powell , who sees something in Doug’s careful viewing of Birds in America that makes him take Doug under his wing, so to speak. There is Doug’s science teacher, who tells Doug directly that it doesn’t matter what his brother does, it matters what Doug does. There is the police officer’s family on his grocery delivery route who asks Doug to babysit their children. This is a town full of people who get to know Doug and see his potential. And as he is recognized for his good qualities, you begin to see a change in Doug. He begins to break out of the mold he seems destined for at the beginning of the novel.
This book is breathtaking, both in its cruelty and its hope. You root for Doug from the beginning, but as you get to know his family and the town of Marysville, you want them all to succeed. I strongly believe this should be on every Mock Newbery and Printz list (Glendale Public Library, I’m talking to you!) this year. Its combination of historical fiction, coming-of-age story and layered family narrative are compelling and exquisite. Read it now – don’t wait until it wins a medal.
Okay for Now. Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, 2011.