There are three kinds of literary sequels for kids out there. First, you have the sequel that is so intricately tied into the plot of the first book that not a page goes by that you don’t feel you’re missing something if you skipped Book #1. The second kind of sequel nods to the first book and brings up continual facts from it, but is a coherant story in its own right. The third kind of sequel makes mention of facts and/or people in the first book but if you read the story on your own you might not even be aware that there was previous book in the first place. Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt would be the third type of sequel, I think. Ostensibly a sequel to his Newbery Honor winning title The Wednesday Wars, the hero of Okay for Now, Doug Swieteck, was a bit part character in the first book, and now has come entirely into his own in the second. For fans of the first, you will enjoy the second. And for people who begin with the second, you won’t miss a thing really if you haven’t read the first. All you’ll know is that you have a great book on your hands. A great great book.
“You’re not always going to get everything you want, you know. That’s not what life is like.” It’s not like the librarian Mrs. Merriam needs to tell Doug that. If any kid is aware that life is not a bed of roses, it’s Doug. Stuck in a family with a dad that prefers talking with his fists to his mouth, a sweet but put upon mom, a brother in Vietnam, and another one at home making his little brother’s life a misery, it’s not like Doug’s ever had all that much that’s good in his life. When he and his family move to Marysville, New York (herein usually referred to as “stupid Marysville”) things start to change a little. Doug notices the amazing paintings of birds in an Audubon book on display in the public library. The boy is captivated by the birds, but soon it becomes clear that to raise money, the town has been selling off different pages in the book to collectors. Between wanting to preserve the book, learning to draw, solving some problems at school, the return of his brother from Vietnam, and maybe even falling in love, Doug’s life in “stupid” Marysville takes a turn. Whether it’s a turn for the better or a turn for the worse is up to him.
It’s such a relief sometimes to read a great writer for kids. Not a merely good writer, but a great writer. Mr. Schmidt is one of the few. You haven’t gotten even two pages into the story of this book before Doug tells you about his brother hitting him. He writes that he, “Pummeled me in places where the bruises wouldn’t show. A strategy that my . . . is none of your business.” Beautiful. Right there we know that not only is our narrator telling us his story, but he’s also hiding secrets along the way. In fact, throughout the book Doug will repeat ideas or thoughts or phrases that he’s been ruminating over, seemingly unaware that he’s working those same thoughts into the narrative. Doug isn’t so much an unreliable narrator to us as he is an unreliable narrator to himself.
Schmidt’s dialogue is also always on point and interesting, but of particular interest are his descriptions. When Doug and his mother enter a bus to greet someone there, Doug says of his mother that “Her blue coat was spread out, and it covered them both like wide wings…” Doug spends a great deal of time comparing the people he knows to the birds in Audubon’s paintings. This is one of those instances where he’s doing it entirely unconsciously. He wants his mother to be a bird. Just not necessarily to fly away.
There’s a bit of wordplay at work regarding Doug’s brothers that I think is clever but actually had me quite confused for a portion of the book. We learn pretty early on that Doug has a brother in Vietnam who was a jerk before he left and we know he has a different older brother at home. There is one moment when we learn that the Vietnam brother’s name is Lucas, but for the most part it’s easy to get confused and assume that the brother at home is Lucas instead. After all, whenever Doug feels himself acting like a jerk he says he’s acting just like Lucas. When we finally meet Lucas, Doug’s constant references to “my brother” (which is to say, Christopher) disappear. The two brothers now have names and are becoming increasingly better people. Christopher, for the record, is the only person in the family strong enough to carry Lucas. One can’t help drawing some comparisons to St. Christopher and the burden that he carried as well. Knowing Mr. Schmidt, I suspect this is no coincidence.
One of the most remarkable things about Gary Schmidt’s writing for kids is that he allows his villains some complexity. It takes a certain kind of author to create an unlikable individual (not hard), display them in an honest way through a child’s perceptions (harder), and then somehow manage to, if not redeem that person, at least show that there’s another side to them in a way that a kid can believe (unbelievably difficult). Stock two-dimensional have their place in the world but a novel like Okay for Now works because each bad person has something about them that humanizes them (with the exception of one, and that’s only because we never really get to meet him). The crusty old librarian has a son in Vietnam who’s missing. Doug’s brothers have been dealing with their father far longer than Doug, and you can see the effect. The coach at school is still suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Doug’s father even is lent a bit of redemption near the end, though whether or not the reader is willing to forgive him is up in the air (I, for one, don’t).
There is also an art to taking a subject that is primarily of interest to adult, and making that subject palatable to a child audience. Louis Sachar did a fairly good job of it in the bridge-centric The Cardturner. John Grisham failed on every level when he penned the self-explanatory Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. And Gary Schmidt set himself up for disaster when he brought up not only the subject of James Audubon’s paintings but info on how to play horseshoes as well. I say he set himself up for disaster, but disaster was not forthcoming. He failed to fail disastrously. Instead, he manages to pull both subjects off. The horseshoes because they are a game and all games, even those played by folks who look like they may have served their country during the Civil War, are still essentially fun (caveat: If someone writes a shuffleboard book for 10-year-olds I may be proven wrong about this). The Audubon factor is tricky partly because it requires kids to care about dead, drawn birds. They have a little help in that Henry Cole penned the very Audubon-centric younger chapter book title A Nest for Celeste not long ago and some young readers may pick up on the name. Still and all, Schmidt and his publisher made the ultimately clever decision to begin each chapter with a painting of a bird that will play a role in Doug’s life.
Generally speaking, motivations and characters are consistent here. Some moments made me question Doug’s sanity, though. Here you have a kid who almost has a psychotic for a father. He knows this and he also knows that his father has his heart set on winning a trivia contest at the company picnic that year. So what does Doug do? He joins up with a nice old man throwing horseshoes and decides to give all the right answers himself. Now if you live with a psychotic then you have to live by the psychotic’s rules. Doug doesn’t, which works in the context of the story (A) because Doug is contrary by nature and (B) because in the end it turns out that the old man Doug befriended was probably the one person at the picnic who could deflect his father’s attention. Still, for a moment there I wanted to shake that kid and remind him of the danger he was placing himself into. On a related note, I found myself haunted for quite some time after reading about what Doug’s dad did to his own son years ago. It’s one of the darkest things I’ve ever read in a children’s novel, but not so much that it’s inappropriate for younger readers. I suspect primarily older folks like myself will find it as disturbing as I do. Still . . . . *shudder*
I’ve heard some note that the notion in the book that an unknown, untried girl getting a Broadway part without any prior acting experience is, at best, laughable. They are probably correct about this. I admit that the Broadway show portion of the book is far less interesting than some of the rest of it. It brings some nice closure for the characters but sometimes feels a bit odd when you consider things like the fact that the kids in the show can live in Marysville and just travel to New York City to perform on weekends. Still, while I as an adult didn’t quite buy it, it didn’t hurt the book for me.
To my mind Gary Schmidt presents worlds that are full of decent people and not so decent people who have reasons for their weirdnesses. Worlds that you either wish you lived in or believe you already live in. There’s nothing easy about this particular Schmidt story. At the same time, it’s incredibly readable and fun. I credit Doug’s voice. There’s much to be said about a hero who can be a complete and total “Lucas” at times and yet still appeal to you. This is historical fiction that surpasses the usual trappings of the genre to become universal. Definitely one of the best books of the year. Catch it and catch it quick.
On shelves April 18th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Now I’ve heard at least one person I know say they don’t like this cover, and personally I have to object. Vehemently. To my mind, this is a brilliant solution to an age old problem. Mainly, how do you accurately convey a book on a jacket without pretending that the book is contemporary. There is a perception that if a kid sees a child on a cover dressed in clothing that is less than entirely modern, they will eschew the book. I have to assume that this is the reason we haven’t been seeing a lot of bellbottoms on the covers of books like Shooting the Moon or Kalaidescope Eyes or even Mr. Schmidt’s own Wednesday Wars, in spite of the fact that they take place during the Vietnam War. Ditto big hair. So this solution for Okay for Now is almost pitch perfect, even if it is cheating a little. First off, everyone likes smiley faces. The paper bag shown here even harkens back to Doug’s deliveries during the story. The unraveling baseball references not only the disappearing, reappearing, disappearing ball Doug wins in the trivia contest, but also the number of stitches each ball contains (an important plot point). As for the clothing on the kid seen here, white undershirts are eternal, and I don’t think a kid could walk onto the street in 1968 wearing those pants and those shoes and have to worry about getting beaten up. The title is a bit unmemorable, but I think the cover makes up for it, and more to the point it’s appealing. I wholly and entirely approve.
Favorite Line: “In the whole story of the world, bananas have never once been a special treat.”
Other Blog Reviews:
- Annie and Aunt
- Dog Ear
- Kennelon Library Teen Blog
- Kate’s Book Blog
- Mrs. Katz’s Book Blurbs
- Just One More Page
- The Goddess of YA Literature
- Hornspoon Reviews
Video: Hear Gary Schmidt talk a bit about the book, explaining that it’s more of a companion book than a sequel. He also owns cute cats. So that’s a plus.