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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Okay for Now, Dead End in Norvelt

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.

9780547534176 Okay for Now, Dead End in Norvelt

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.

9780374379933 Okay for Now, Dead End in Norvelt

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.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Sondy says:

    I loved OKAY FOR NOW, and have been wholeheartedly hoping it will win the Medal.

    Then I went to my KidLit Book Club Sunday, discussing OKAY FOR NOW. It seemed like the majority had big credibility issues. One couldn’t get past someone learning to read so fast. Others thought it was totally unrealistic that a Broadway play would get produced so fast. And once they got going, they found lots more. (Though all said they did love the book anyway.)

    I found myself so taken with Doug Swietek, I glossed over any credibility issues. But I do find myself wondering how they will fly with the committee.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    These two make a natural comparison, don’t they? Even their covers are eerily similar!

    OKAY FOR NOW

    This book has some of the most distinguished features of any book this year. The prose is exceptionally strong and does a great job of allowing the story and the characters to induce a range of emotions. But there are also quite a few credibility issues and some pacing issues. Moreover–and this is not necessarily part of the Newbery criteria–the book does not feel very fresh to me, but rather formulaic. I almost feel like I can sketch an outline for the third volume in the trilogy: Lilly moves to New Jersey where she unexpectedly develops a keen interest in music (or acting) where she also meets and overcomes adversity at home and in school in a book packed with more tears, more laughter, more melodrama–and even more pages (about 470 or so).

    DEAD END IN NORVELT

    This shares many of the same strengths as OKAY FOR NOW, but the highs are not quite as high, and the lows are not quite as low either; it’s more even. While it’s not a Newbery criteria, this book is a distillation of everything Gantos has written so far–with echoes of JACK HENRY, JOEY PIGZA, HOLE IN MY LIFE, and LOVE CURSE OF THE RUMBAUGHS. It very much has the feel of a magnum opus. The humor here does not appeal as broadly as Schmidt’s, but when it works, it really, really works. I had this one pegged as a Nina favorite because of her affection for THE CANNING SEASON and THE KNEEBONE BOY, although I’m not sure this book has the darkness of either of those books. There’s not the contrast of shadow and light, is there? Then, too, it’s very episodic which can be a wonderful quality in a book, but in one this long, it leaves you open to pacing issues. Dean Schneider in his Horn Book review compares the wonderful Miss Volker to Grandma Dowdel. They certainly are kindred spirits, but Grandma Dowdel figures into episodic plots with half the number of pages.

    Can you tell that I am honest-to-goodness sick to death of bloated middle grade books? I’m just not going to be any fun this year. :-( Nevertheless, these are clearly two frontrunners for the Newbery Medal, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one sporting a sticker of one kind or another (say, a Printz sticker). I’m not at the point in the year where I feel strongly about one book over another, so while I’m not convinced these are the Medal winners just yet, I’m also not convinced they aren’t.

  3. I can’t comment on Dead End in Norvelt (I just ordered it for the collection), but I also have credibility issues with Okay For Now. Two kids with no professional acting experience get roles on Broadway? Professional actors belong to a union (Actors Equity); if you’re not union, you aren’t on Broadway, and this would have been no different in the 1960s. I’m a Gary Schmidt fan (I wanted The Wednesday Wars to win the Medal for its year), and thought Okay for Now was excellent until I got to the play part. I think it’s a significant enough issue for it being a Newbery contender.

  4. DaNae says:

    Oh, Jonathan, Jonathan, you are at your most fun when you’re snarky and annoyed. It’s half the reason we show up.

    Schmidt’s third book in the companionshilp is going to be about Holling’s other friend Meryl Lee, I believe.

  5. Genevieve says:

    Jennifer, I don’t think that’s a concern. Actors can’t join Equity until they have fifty weeks working in Equity theatres. Until that point, they can be hired by Equity theatres as Equity Membership Candidates (EMCs), and begin earning their hours. http://www.actorsequity.org/membership/emc.asp

    As long as the theatre offers the EMC program, they can hire actors who are EMCs. This will be particularly true of child actors, who are less likely to have worked the required fifty weeks. The frequent practice at auditions is for Equity members to be auditioned first, then EMCs, and then any non-union actors (who could then become EMCs if they get the job). Of course, I don’t know what the practice was in 1968/9.

  6. Genevieve says:

    Looking further, I found:

    Equity, unlike the other performing unions, does not REQUIRE union membership until age 14. Often Equity shows will hire the child performers as non-union (and pay them far less), while allowing the few Equity contracts to go to adults.
    http://www.educatingyoungstars.com/notes/Equity_Membership_Requirements

  7. The characterization in Okay for Now seems almost strong enough to outweigh concerns about realism–it seems to have strayed into, if not exactly magical realism, then magical realisticness, the kind of territory you’re willing to enter because you believe in the story that’s being told. There are a few moments where, if you’re not completely bowled over in your heart, you might get pulled out of the story, like Doug’s dad’s transformation, as well as the events already cited.

  8. Alys says:

    I disagree about Okay for Now being plot thin. If anything, I think it had too much plot! I feel like the Schmidt was writing a character-driven novel, but didn’t realize that and felt the need to throw in crazy plot elements (Broadway! Sudden Understudies! Sickness as a subplot that goes nowhere!) to create a semblance of a story, instead of sticking with the quieter, but more realistic, portrait of Doug. Think about it: if all of the Broadways scenes were wiped out, do you feel like the story would suffer? I wouldn’t. Versus if the scenes portraying Doug’s relationship with his brothers were taken out, I would cry.

  9. Genevieve, I’m afraid I’m about to be boring and pedantic about this issue. However, the Broadway subplot still does not seem realistic to me. It’s entirely possible that an absolute untried child actor would be chosen for the a significant role, but, from my knowledge of Broadway musical history (it’s one of my hobbies), it’s quite rare. Occasionally, there are open auditions for major child leads-the Annie folks seem to love this in particular (they’re doing it again for an upcoming revival), but the children selected usually have at least some amateur experience. As for the EMC programs-I could be wrong, but I think that you would find that program more so in regional theater than at a Broadway theater. The understudy situation is another issue. Alys, I think the story suffers for the Broadway scenes.

    Okay, I’m done harping on the Broadway stuff. I really, really did think the book was tremendous until the Broadway part (and the illness at the end). I’m just being super picky because we’re talking about a Newbery possibility. Carry on.

  10. Mr. H says:

    A quick Google check tells me that 71 shows opened on Broadway in 1968. You’re telling me that a Broadway playwright wouldn’t be able to have handpicked 2 roles for children in a play/musical that they had written? Out of 71 shows that opened, you think every single role in all 71 went to Union or EMC actors and actresses through rigorous auditions?

    Unlikely, sure. But this is realistic fiction. Some suspension of disbelief is required among ANY realistic fiction novel to various degrees. That’s why it’s fiction. I surely hope the Broadway stuff doesn’t hold back the book too much. Because the good stuff in OKAY FOR NOW, is mighty mighty good.

  11. DaNae says:

    At the risk of sounding really stupid. Don’t we come to fiction to stretch the boundaries of credibility? Don’t we want the author to take us beyond what we find out our own windows? Don’t we want to encounter the extraordinary?

    When it comes to the issues being discussed about OKAY FOR NOW, I feel the strongest criticism to be the supposed softening of Doug’s father. When I read it I saw a man who was faced with selling his own son out to protect a dirt bag friend. On that night he rose to the occasion. I assumed the next day he would be back to securing his role as bad papa of the decade. Betsy Bird did an excellent blog post on the difference of perception between adults and children when encountering situations such as these in reading.

    I understand that contrivance is weak writing. I heard Bruce Colville speak this summer at SCBWI and he said it is ok to begin with coincidence but it has no place is solving a plot dilemma. I didn’t feel like Schmidt stooped to contrivance.

  12. Wendy says:

    I agree strongly with Jennifer on the Broadway issue. COULD the director/producer have done it? Sure. WOULD they have? I think it’s really, really unlikely, to the point of being kind of silly. If you read, say, Noel Streatfeild books–while allowing that that’s a slightly earlier time period, and mostly England–you get a picture of the audition and casting process for plays and movies. Books by Lee Wyndham and Helen Dore Boylston, as well as The Small Rain by Madeleine L’Engle, also give background.

    It may be that Gary Schmidt KNOWS someone, or knows of someone, who was suddenly plucked to be in a Broadway play. Stranger things have happened. But even that wouldn’t necessarily make it work in the book, if the book is realistic fiction.

    But is it? Rebecca brings up magical realism–I do think it strays that way. The best thing I’ve heard (I don’t know where I read it; I just know it wasn’t MY idea) is that the book is sort of in the style of Dickens and Victorian literature in general; a rags-to-riches story that strains belief here and there. I can get on board with that. That idea makes the book make more sense to me.

    Overall, though, I don’t think the book would have suffered any if the Broadway plot had been eliminated altogether. I didn’t think it added a lot to the book (other than length and credibility issues).

    The other part that really bothered me was the interaction with the baseball player in the audience. I kept expecting that to be a dream–how was that remotely realistic? On the other hand, some people have expressed doubt about Doug’s big secret (what his dad did to him)–that didn’t seem “off” to me at all.

    Of course, I have to give a shout-out for my pet cause: no author’s note! Forgive me for quoting my own Goodreads review: thank you…for the blank space where you could have stuck in information about Vietnam veterans and Audubon and Jane Eyre and the moon landing; for trusting your book and your readers enough to know that they’ve, in the words of the book, got it.

  13. “I surely hope the Broadway stuff doesn’t hold back the book too much. Because the good stuff in OKAY FOR NOW, is mighty mighty good.”

    Mr. H, I agree that the good stuff is mighty, mighty good. It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year. If I didn’t think highly of it, I wouldn’t spend time discussing it and nitpicking at this one subplot in a story with multiple subplots. As for this:

    “Out of 71 shows that opened, you think every single role in all 71 went to Union or EMC actors and actresses through rigorous auditions? ”

    I have limited knowledge of labor practices in general, but I do know that the Broadway industry is heavily unionized and has been unionized for nearly a century. The extensive timeline posted on the AEA website is filled with contract talks, strikes, etc, especially during the 1960s. Yes, it’s possible for an “unknown” to get a role-I mentioned that Annie has a history of doing big campaigns to find Annie and the orphans (although these children still tend to have some experience).

    I think my main gripe is that the story until then was so compelling, thoughtful, mature, believable, and breathtaking at times that this whole Broadway deal threw me for a loop. If the Newbery committee decided today that Okay For Now was the Medalist, I would honestly be very happy for Gary Schmidt. It’s just the Broadway subplot, in my opinion, falls apart.

    (Now, I’m really done-I won’t clutter up the discussion with harping on it further. I mean it this time.)

  14. Sondy says:

    I’m on board with OKAY FOR NOW, still. But the members of my book club, more familiar with Broadway, did manage to convince me that aspect was a huge problem. They did mention the child actors being unlikely. But a much bigger deal to them: It takes two to three years, minimum, to get a play produced on Broadway. They did not at all believe it could have happened in the timetable of the book. One of them had read a book all about Broadway in 1968. She really didn’t believe that part.

    I enjoyed the book tremendously and still hope it will win. However, having seen these points, I will now be less incredulous if it doesn’t.

  15. Roger Sutton says:

    Along the lines of Okay for Now, take a look at Pat Schmatz’s Bluefish, out this month from Candlewick. Sleeper of the season, imo.

  16. Brandy says:

    I had not read all the way through this post until today because I hadn’t read Dead End in Norvelt. I still haven’t read it but decided to go ahead and read this anyway.

    I have read Okay For Now and LOVED it. It is definitely my favorite of the contenders I have read. That being said, the Broadway thing tripped me up too. I agree that it could have been completely left out and been the better for it. I also agree that it stretches credibility. However, I am one of those that think ALL fiction stretches credibility and that is part of the reason it is so attractive to most of us.

    I didn’t have any problems with the turn around of Doug’s father or the illness. Especially given the book’s title. At the end everything is “okay for now” but not guaranteed to stay that way.

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Schmidt and Gantos both excel in stylistic prose, characterization, and character development so effortlessly that not only would I read 350 pages, but I would gladly read 500 or more–and I would follow them wherever they lead, magical, realistic, or otherwise. But scenes and chapters need to support the plot and/or the theme, otherwise they’re extraneous, no matter how enjoyable. Whatever happened to murdering your darlings?

    Gantos writes an episodic plot with some revelations about the the shotgun and the town deaths thrown in at the end. The extra pages don’t support the plot or the theme; they support the characters which were already well established. Is this absolutely necessary?

    I wouldn’t describe Schmidt’s plotting as episodic, but it’s not as sophisticated as some of the best genre fiction either. His plots remind me of a braid–weaving back and forth between several strands of subplot in a fairly predictable manner. There is a bit of everything but the kitchen sink in this one. So while it does support the plot, it doesn’t further it any meaningful way. Hence, my feelings of listlessness in some parts of the novel.

  18. Nancy Werlin says:

    Jonathan says: “But scenes and chapters need to support the plot and/or the theme, otherwise they’re extraneous, no matter how enjoyable.”

    No, not at all. Are you aware of the term “set piece”? A set piece is there PURELY for the reader’s enjoyment. A wonderful essay by Philip Martin describes the set piece, it starts out with movie examples but then moves on to books:
    http://www.greatlakeslit.com/articles/set_piece.html

    I will add that the set piece can provide a wonderful and necessary time of rest for the reader within the story. Done well, set pieces are not extraneous. They are one of the reasons a book can be so satisfying.

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nancy, I have heard of set pieces, but in the context of movies rather than novels. Thanks for bringing it up. There’s an exception (or two) to every rule. Do Schmidt or Gantos use set pieces in these books? I don’t know; I’d need to reread. I know I’m being curmudgeonly here, but I do admire both books . . .

  20. Eric Rohmann says:

    Gary’s Okay for Now, in both style and content, is clearly akin to parable: a gathering of honest moments, some bordering on magical, that coalesce into sincere meaning. He finds his way with simple, clear sentences which add up to a something greater: a heartfelt, genuine life that readers recognize and understand I’m an artist and have never read a novel that explained the process of “seeing” as an artist sees with such subtle knowledge. For me, the book exists in the same place as many of Kate DiCamillo’s novels, or, as someone had mentioned, in the coincidental realism of Dickens. With all these writers the stories may stray, often inventing their own “physics” because the real story demands it. Does anybody actually believe that Hamlet’s ghost exists, or that Charlotte could weave words with spider silk? With Okay for Now, one may question the facts, be caught off guard by an unlikely moment, but as with all good stories the facts are far less important than the truth.

  21. DaNae says:

    Mr. Rohmann,

    Thank you for saying what I didn’t know I wanted to say so beautifully.

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