Gary Schmidt and Jack Gantos are probably loathe to hear it, but their newest novels, clearly–if to differing degrees–based on their own childhood experiences, can both be chalked up as “historical fiction.” But Doug Swieteck, and…well…Jack Gantos, hailing from 1968 and 1962 respectively, present themselves as two of the most present characters in any of the Newbery contenders this year, and their stories are truly character-driven stories.
Each protagonist is deposited into a situation he’s not pleased with (Doug, a new home, Jack–what else–grounded), in which he performs poorly and to the disappointment of his mother. They each find unusual ways to express themselves given their circumstances, and each story ends on the final page with an image of flying. It’s a simple plot arc, with a well-trod final image-driven metaphor that releases the protagonist from his self-imposed emotional purgatory. Yet Schmidt and Gantos each use this simply frame completely differently, and to marvelous effect.
In OKAY FOR NOW, Schmidt once again does that magical thing of hiding an understory behind his unreliable narrator, making Doug so real that the reader knows when he’s lying to himself. He subtly reveals the stunning yet sadly ordinary family predicament that Doug finds himself him with a vividness that will let the reader finally understand what a friend has likely told them sometime in their life: “you don’t know what it’s like until it happens to you.” Schmidt tends to walk the far side of the schmaltz line, but in his hands, better that than the safe side. I will happily take a little gooey if it comes with a few electric heart-hit-out-of-the-park moments.
And anyway, then there’s Gantos to dispel any residual goo with his turpentine-like humor. He fills DEAD END IN NORVELT with blood and death: Jack, prone to frequent nosebleeds, is forcibly apprenticed to the town’s obituary writer. But in Jack’s world, as much as the adults try to make things seem normal, there is something amiss. The side-plot of Jack’s woefully mismatched yet in-love parents is wonderfully articulated, brave and vivid. There’s even less plot here than in OKAY, and Gantos seems to flail around towards the end until he does all he manage with his characters and sends them onward with a bang. It requires a leap of faith…where Schmidt very determinedly criss-crosses a line, Gantos just seems to leaps chasms without premeditation. You just have to go with him.
Both of these stories have definite and easily identifiable flaws…in the lightweight plots that sag in parts, and leaps that do require that the reader’s fully bought in. Each book taken on it’s own, the strengths prevail. It remains to be seen how they hold up against the rest of the field, but from here they seem to stand a fighting chance.