Betsy has her latest round of Newbery/Caldecott predictions up and, not surprisingly, OKAY FOR NOW is at the very top of the list. Betsy praises the book for its “heart” and its ability to get readers “emotionally involved,” both wonderful intangibles for a book to have, but qualities that we need to translate into the Newbery criteria for the purposes of our discussion here. There’s definitely lots of love for this book, but I worry that such adoration clouds our judgment and blinds us to potential faults in the book.
Hopefully, you all caught K.T. Horning’s insightful piece, “Secrecy and the Newbery Medal,” in the July/August issue of the Horn Book. This past summer, K.T. also posted her initial reaction to OKAY FOR NOW on the adbooks listserv where her comments generated quite a vigorous discussion, a discussion I hope to replicate here.
I just finished Gary D. Schmidt’s new book, “Okay for Now,” which has
been getting great reviews, mostly starred. I was prepared to agree with
them, even though there were several things I had to chalk up to poetic
license, such as the idea of a library cutting individual plates from a
John James Audubon book to sell whenever they needed money. (If they
were that hard up and didn’t really care about the book, why not just
sell the whole thing intact to a collector or a museum for much more money?)
I really liked the main character, Doug, and came to appreciate — even
look forward to — his weekly routine of going to school, delivering
groceries on Saturdays, and going to the library to practice drawing
birds. I appreciated the way Schmidt developed the character as a
budding artist, and all of the adults in his town who supported him in
different ways. I loved the voice, and the way the protagonist addressed
the audience directly, a la “Our Town.”
But then we get to those last 50 pages.
****SPOILER ALERT for anyone who hasn’t read it yet and intends to.
First of all, I found it really hard to believe that Doug would be able
to track down all the missing Audubon plates so easily, and that they
were all, except for one, right in his hometown. But I wanted to believe
it, for Doug’s sake, so I did. I gave the author that.
But then we got to the part where Lil and Doug just happened to be in
the right place at the right time to get cast in a Broadway play.
Really? REALLY?! First of all, it’s hard to believe that in 1968
Broadway was so hard-up for talent that they couldn’t find anyone to
play Helen Burns, a role young Elizabeth Taylor had played in the 1944
movie version. I’m not even going to get into the issue of the Actors’
Equity Association, or how Lil and Doug got to and from rehearsals in
New York City, or the fact that Doug’s off-stage shrieking as Bertha
Mason would likely have been taped instead of being performed by a live
actor every night. (And what ever happened to that any way — Lil
dropped out due to terminal illness, but why didn’t Doug stick with it?
He would have been paid a lot more than the $5 a week he was earning as
a delivery boy.)
The whole bit with Lil getting sick on opening night and Doug serving as
her stand-in because he was the only one who “knew all her lines”
–really? I might have bought that if it were a school production, maybe
even community theater, but Broadway? And I kept wondering, what boy in
1968 had enough hair to pull back into a pony tail?
Can we talk about the absurdity of Joe Pepitone going to a stage
production of “Jane Eyre” on opening night? That makes me chuckle every
time I think of it, but then I’m old enough to remember Joe “I didn’t
know cocaine was illegal” Pepitone. I actually read his autobiography
when I was a kid, and he doesn’t strike me as the type who’d go to Jane
Eyre on Broadway, especially not during baseball season. It’s also not
too hard to figure out that the last Friday in May, opening night for
Jane Eyre according to Schmidt, Pepitone was in Detroit, playing center
field for the Yankees against the Tigers. He might as well have stayed
in NYC that night since he had no hits and one strike out in his four at
bats that night. The stats are right there and, in this case, they don’t
I also didn’t buy the idea of the junior high gym teacher being able to
make an on-the-spot hire on behalf of the school. If it had been the
principal, maybe. But the gym teacher? In all honesty, this move
surprised me, even more than Lucas’s ability to get his heavy wheel
chair up the six steps to the library entrance, by himself, by pulling
and leaning. (Would this even be physically possible for a legless
weight lifter? And it it’s so easy for an ordinary guy in a wheelchair,
why don’t more people in wheelchairs use this technique all the time?)
In any case, I had been fully expecting the heart-of-gold factory owner
to hire Lucas for some sort of administrative job at which he would make
twice as much as his father.
And while we’re on the subject of golden hearts, why the mass sudden
changes of heart on behalf of the entire cast of tough-guy characters
(except for Ernie Eco who was apparently irredeemable)? The principal,
all the mean teachers, the two brothers, and Doug’s abusive father –
all suddenly turned into caring human beings at the end of the book. And
why didn’t we get the satisfaction of seeing Ernie Eco brought to
justice? I would have preferred that to the sentimental ending that was
straight out of Love Story.
I would like to hear from the book’s champions. I liked the book better
than it sounds like I do, which is probably why I am so irritated by the
last 50 pages. And perplexed by all the glowing reviews. Did everyone
else read a different book?
Now I’ll admit that when I read OKAY FOR NOW, I was so engaged by the story that Schmidt had managed to turn off my critical thinking faculties, and I completely missed many of these concerns, but now that K.T. has raised them I can clearly see them. Can you make arguments against each of these specific points? Yes, and people have been arguing about the Broadway issue in the comments to Nina’s previous post. For me, however, it’s not any one point that is particularly damning, but rather the entire collection of them. There’s too many holes in the dike, and we don’t have enough fingers to plug them all.
What I did vaguely sense, however, was that something was off with the ending, but I couldn’t really articulate it very well until I remembered these comments from Kenneth Oppel on the challenges of writing a sequel (which come from a previous Horn Book article I wrote, “Epic Fantasy Meets Sequel Prejudice”).
Many people think writing a sequel is easier than writing an original stand-alone work. A sequel is certainly easier in some ways — you’ve got your world, your characters established — but it’s also much harder. You’ve lost forever that freshness, that delight of a new world and meeting new people. You’ve also got to up the ante and make sure it, in some way, surpasses the original. In an adventure story, you’ve got to make sure it’s more exciting, more daring, more audacious, more inventive. At its worst (as in Hollywood movies) this usually takes the form of bigger explosions, more villains, bigger car chases — which, ironically, doesn’t make anything better, only more tedious. The key, I think, is a combination of inventive story and putting the character in situations that test him or her in new and different ways.
While OKAY FOR NOW is more accurately described as a companion novel rather than a sequel, I think it functions the same because of the very strong similarities between this book and its predecessor, THE WEDNESDAY WARS: similar setting, similar voice, similar characters. I wonder if Schmidt didn’t feel the need to up the ante by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink at the end–not necessarily for the reader, but for himself as a writer. Wouldn’t he tire of simply writing a retread of THE WEDNESDAY WARS? Now, fortunately, OKAY FOR NOW is not competing with THE WEDNESDAY WARS, but rather other books published in 2011. Then, too, my misguided psychoanalysis of Schmidt doesn’t really factor into the Newbery conversation either. I would divest myself of all that baggage on a second reading. Like K.T., I actually like the book better than it sounds like I do. But somebody has to be the voice of reason, and stem the tide of unmitigated author worship, right?