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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 8: Okay for Now vs Wonderstruck

Okay for Now
by Gary Schmidt
by Brian Selznick

Judged by
Jeff Kinney

Oh, the delicious irony. A guy who draws stick-figure cartoons gets to judge which book is better on its literary merits… the one written by the Caldecott-winning author or the one written by the two-time Newbery Honor winner. Perhaps the meek shall inherit the earth after all.

First, I must confess that when I received my copies of Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick, and Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt, I had to re-acquaint myself with the notion of a physical book. I consume plenty of books… I just don’t read any. Because I do my cartoon drawings at night during what would otherwise be prime reading time, if I want to enjoy a book, I have to put on a pair of headphones and multitask. Every novel I’ve purchased over the past five years has been an audiobook, so all of my “reading” comes courtesy of my ears, not my eyes.

So it really was exciting to unwrap these two great paper tomes, throw on a pair of reading glasses, sit down in a comfortable chair, and dig in.

I started with Okay for Now (and at the time, I didn’t realize it was available as an audiobook, having foolishly searched for “O.K. for Now” on iTunes) because it looked less intimidating than Selznick’s massive novel. Cracking Schmidt’s book and reading the first page, I felt disoriented… without having someone reading to me, I didn’t know how the narrator should sound. Luckily, Schmidt made that part easy for me. Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck’s voice rings clear as a bell, and by the third page, I felt like I knew him. In some ways, Doug is your typical middle schooler. He can be sarcastic and he puts up a tough front for his peers and teachers, but it’s easy to see through these defense mechanisms to the basic goodness right below the surface. It’s Doug’s vulnerability that makes him most appealing.

And vulnerable he is. Doug is in a difficult situation, having moved to a new town, led there by a father whose volcanic temper snuffs out any chance his family might have at finding happiness in a new place. When school starts, Doug quickly becomes a pariah, suffering under the combined weight of his older brother’s bad reputation and a humiliating tattoo etched on his skin, a “birthday gift” forced on Doug by his drunken father. (Dark stuff here.)

The tattoo is one of several revelations that are forced into the open by the narrative, crucial bits of information that the narrator is not willing to offer on his own. Doug is not an unreliable narrator; he simply tells the reader only what they need to know, and sometimes much less. Schmidt’s greatest achievement in Okay for Now is the restraint with which he allows his narrator to tell his story. Nowhere is this restraint better exercised than on the last page, when Schmidt lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions about how the story will really end.

At the heart of Okay for Now is the sense of wonder Doug feels as he discovers a book of drawings by John Audubon in a public library. Doug is captivated by the complicated and seemingly ever-changing emotions expressed by the birds in the drawings… emotions that Doug is experiencing in real time. Doug’s quest to find the missing folios of the book mirrors his quest to make himself whole. By the end, whatever the outcome of the narrative, the reader is left with no doubt that Doug has achieved what he set out to do. And so has Schmidt. Okay for Now in a word?  As Doug would say: “Terrific.”

It’s not surprising that a similar sense of wonder permeates Brian Selznick’s “novel in words and pictures,” Wonderstruck. Some judges in the Battle of the Kids’ Books have complained that choosing between their books is like comparing apples and oranges, but both of my entries have the same basic plot: middle-school boy finds healing through the power of art/discovery. I feel like my two books are at least in the same ballpark. Call it McIntosh vs. Red Delicious.

I took a deep breath as I dragged Selznick’s book off of my desk and onto my lap. You don’t see books this size without Game of Thrones written on them (excellent audiobook, by the way). I was relieved when I flipped through the book and discovered that Selznick has employed the same method he used for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, using copious illustrations to advance the story. This is one book whose audio version would be absolute rubbish.

Wonderstruck is the story of Ben, a boy whose mother has recently passed away and whose father’s identity is a mystery. Early on in the book, Ben is the victim of a lightning strike that renders him unable to hear. A parallel story, and one that’s initially much more difficult to decode, is the story of Rose, a girl who is deaf, growing up 50 years before Ben. Rose’s story is told entirely through pictures, and the soundless panels perfectly mimic Rose’s soundless world for the reader.

Like Schmidt, Selznick keeps his secrets close to the vest, unveiling them at the moment of maximum impact. Rose’s condition isn’t revealed until we’ve had a chance to try to understand her motivations and her world. It’s a powerful moment when we realize that Rose’s one outlet, cinema, will be forever changed when the silent films she enjoys give way to “talkies.”

Just as Selznick deprives the reader the ability to hear in Rose’s world, he deprives the reader the ability to see in Ben’s world. Only at the moment when Rose’s story and Ben’s stories intersect are we able to visualize Ben and his world. Powerful stuff, and something achievable only in the hybrid medium Selznick has created.

Wonderstruck is told in simple prose and charcoal drawings, but its emotional impact is visceral. It’s not often that I’m moved by a book… that’s what movies are for, after all… but Selznick has created a new medium and mastered it all at once. His book, in a word: “Wondrous.”

And now to tally things up, just as Doug would do:

Prose: Okay for Now
Voice: Okay for Now
Story: Wonderstruck
Illustrations: Let’s give this one to Selznick, even though Audubon was pretty good.
Jane Eyre references: Okay for Now
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler references: Wonderstruck
Didn’t-see-that-coming secrets: Tie
Emotional impact: Wonderstruck

By my tally, that’s Wonderstruck by a hair.

— Judge Jeff Kinney

And the Winner of this match is……

Oh, my! Quite an upset! As Jeff noted in his critique, and as we have hashed out again and again and again on Heavy Medal, Doug’s voice is pretty amazing and his story resonates so strongly and clearly with readers that OKAY FOR NOW should have a long life, if not in the zombie round then in the hearts of its many fans. As with HEART AND SOUL, I’m happy to finally have an integrated discussion of the merits of WONDERSTRUCK, and who could make that case better than a fellow author/illustrator: Just as Selznick deprives the reader the ability to hear in Rose’s world, he deprives the reader the ability to see in Ben’s world. Only when Rose’s story and Ben’s stories intersect are we able to visualize Ben and his world . . . Selznick has created a new medium and mastered it all at once. Now can it succeed where A MONSTER CALLS failed? Can it beat LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

The thing is, Okay for Now has a truly large emotional impact. As Mr. Kinney points out, Wonderstruck does too, but I would at least consider it a tie. Selznick’s prose is just too simple, however, and his plot is as well. When Rose’s and Ben’s stories intersect is amazing, but that is the main thing that makes the book great (besides the illustrations).  On the bright side, this saves me from the dreaded Okay for Now vs. Life: An Exploded Diagram, which would be a real headache although I probably prefer Life.

— Kid Commentator RGN


  1. WHAT??? I cannot believe it it!!! Wonderstruck is clearly a lovely book – I would have read it for the illustrations alone, but Okay for Now BLEW ME AWAY. I am truly a little bit heartbroken over this loss. Absolutely never saw it coming. I absolutey agree with our Kid Commentator, RGN: Okay for Now does have a HUGE emotional impact and Wonderstruck was, in many ways, very simplistic. Wow… shocked…

  2. Yet another round in which I loved both of the contenders. I thought Wonderstruck would win, but I Doug Swieteck has my heart. He reminds me so much of students I have taught.

  3. I must quit commenting the moment I get up in the morning — I tend to hit the publish button earlier than I intended. Please excuse the error in my previous comment.

    About the ending of Okay for Now, which many people seem to have problems with . . . I think the title makes it clear that this isn’t the perfect happy ending. Sometimes kids ( and they are the primary audience for the book) just need to know that for that moment, Doug will be fine.

  4. Paige, in reference to your comment, I’m still a little baffled by the issues people have with the ending. I read once that someone thought it didn’t get the Newbery just because of the ending! But, I thought it worked very well as a realistic not-ending, but stopping-point for Doug’s story. As you said, Doug will be “okay for now!”

  5. Sam Bloom says

    YYEEEESSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!! The First Round was very nearly perfect – the next round has a whole lot to live up to!

  6. Sigh. I like Wonderstruck a lot but as Paige said Doug has my heart and I wanted to see him move on. I also think Okay For Now would have had a better chance of taking out Life, which I now want to see happen more than I want to see my own pick win. (I feel like an NC State fan watching UNC play.)

  7. Battle Commander says

    We apologize for any early morning heart-squeezing pain to any BoB followers…

  8. As someone who got teased for reading Jane Eyre at age ten, I think it is a wonderful day when we are working out which new middle-grade book has the best Jane Eyre references. I probably preferred Okay for Now a little bit more than Wonderstruck, but I’m still happy. And Okay for Now might have a good chance of coming back as a zombie…

  9. Ouch. This stinks. I’m am totally on board with the kid commentator here . . . you strip away Selznick’s “format” and what you have is a rather simple story. The format and the charcoal illustrations are really the only interesting aspects to WONDERSTRUCK in my opinion.

    Ah well. Jeff Kinney didn’t share that opinion. Now we get to see if OKAY FOR NOW survives in the Undead Poll, as I predicted it would.

  10. This is the first decision that made me yell at my computer. Here I was thinking Mr. Kinney did deserve to inherit the earth for his beautiful analysis of Okay For Now, then he gets his math wrong. Wonderstruck is lovely, but I am passionate about Okay For Now.

  11. Brandy,

    Actually, that would be a Duke fan rooting for UNC or (heaven forbid) a UNC fan rooting for Duke — which I can tell you, this UNC fan will only do if the place down under freezes over 🙂

    I hope Okay for Now can come back from the dead but I suspect that if Chime doesn’t make it on its own, it will be the Undead pick. I wonder what happens if the undead pick makes it to the final round on its own — I’m assuming the second place undead will then rise?

  12. Of those tallies, the one that I TOTALLY disagree with is “story”. No way do I feel like WONDERSTRUCK’s “story” surpasses OKAY FOR NOW’s. Same with “emotional impact”, but I suppose that’s highly subjective.

    Argh. And to think, my bracket was looking okay heading into yesterday. Two in a row.

  13. Battle Commander says


    The Undead winner will be the previously eliminated contender with the greatest number of votes. So if the top winner of the Undead Poll is in the finals or for that matter the top two winners it will be the eliminated contender with the highest number of votes that will join them in the Big Kahuna round.

  14. Wrong again. I should study the judges as carefully as I study the books. I did better last year when I DIDN’T read all the books.

  15. Paige- hahaha, Yes and my husband would agree with you, but I am currently at my brother in law’s house (he is a State grad and huge fan) and he would rather root for Duke (which he also loathes) than Carolina. I was thinking of him when I made that analogy. He will cheer for any team as long as it is not Carolina.

    I also had that same question about the Undead winner.

    Mr. H-I’m feeling your bracket pain the same way here.

  16. Ack…does the Newbery curse work on mock Newbery favorites too? Maybe, just maybe, Doug Swieteck and his birds will come back in zombie form.

  17. Jennifer H says

    More bracket woes. I wanted Okay to move on, but I’m not disappointed that Wonderstruck did. I really enjoyed both of these books, but Wonderstruck had me constantly wondering what was going to happen next. I loved trying to piece together the clues on my own and guess at how a connection would finally be made.

    5 for 8 in the first round brackets, and all of my misses were this week. Tomorrow is my chance to keep my top brackets intact (the bottom one was obliterated due to me picking Monster to go all the way). I’ll be up early to check!

  18. Sigh. My 5 in a row right did NOT prepare me for 3 in a row wrong! On the good side: My Undead vote for Okay for Now was not wasted! On the bad side: Now I definitely won’t get the dream match-up I hoped for: Okay for Now vs. Chime vs. Daughter of Smoke and Bone in the final. At least one of those will not be there.

    But I was afraid this would happen. Not too afraid, because I do like seeing Wonderstruck get some credit for the wonderful way it used words and pictures together. I actually hope now it wins the entire bottom half of the tournament, something I had hoped for Okay for Now. In fact, I think it’s kind of funny that I’m hoping a book I did NOT pick for the first round will make the Final Round. It really is good, even though I’m sad about Okay for Now.

    But I still hope the Final round winner will be Daughter of Smoke & Bone.

    As I write this, I’m more and more glad I voted for Okay for Now in the Undead Poll. Because, as much as I like Daughter & Chime, my heart is still split, and I would still be super happy to see Okay for Now win it all.

    You know, it’s almost a shame Jeff Kinney didn’t find Okay for Now on audio. It was an Odyssey Honor winner, and the audio production is outstanding. I wonder if that would have changed his opinion.

  19. So I am a little bemused by all the people who are so destroyed by the outcomes. I mean, the whole contest is set up so that one really good book is pitted against another really good book. One of them, perforce, is going to lose! Every time! I am more interested by the thought processes of the judges, which have all been worth reading, and less inclined to give them grief for their decisions…

  20. I guessed this right despite having a preference for Okay for Now myself. I am definitely not a Wonderstruck fan – I thought the illustrated sections following Rose were brilliant, especially in how they depicted her soundless world, but the rest was just ok. Okay for Now was a book I could not stop reading.

    Well, I ended 5 for 8 overall in the first round, but both my brackets are pretty much busted since I had Dead End in Norvelt going all the way on the top and A Monster Calls going all the way on the bottom. My original second round guesses were Amelia Lost over Bootleg, Dead End in Norvelt over Chime, Inside Out and Back Again over Drawing from Memory, and A Monster Calls over Wonderstruck.
    Given the actual brackets, I predict Amelia Lost over Between Shades of Grey, Chime over Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Inside Out over Drawing from Memory (my only intact matchup!) and Life over Wonderstruck.

    And I’m definitely pulling for Okay for Now as the zombie.

  21. This was my most anticipated battle and I was rooting for Okay for Now. Thanks for Jeff Kinney for a great judging. There is something so good about Okay for Now and I agree with RGN, it is a tie in my book. I’ll confess now, Okay for Now is my Undead choice. I believe.

  22. Sondy: “You know, it’s almost a shame Jeff Kinney didn’t find Okay for Now on audio. It was an Odyssey Honor winner, and the audio production is outstanding. I wonder if that would have changed his opinion.”

    I thought the EXACT same thing. In fact, I wish I could climb in a time machine, slip that little file into Kinney’s iTunes Library, and attempt to sway his vote a bit.


  24. Can’t talk any more right now. Need to sit in a corner and beat my head against a wall. Will try and surface later.

  25. Martha,

    It’s just fun. That’s all.

    And . . . what if some of us don’t consider all of these to be “winners” from the onset? It sounds like you are of the belief that all of the 16 books are fantastic and it doesn’t really matter who wins. That’s great but that might not be the case for everyone else. I haven’t read all the titles this year but even of the ones I have, some I didn’t like. I don’t think they are “winners”, personally. For example . . . the winner in this particular battle. I have very strong feelings toward WONDERSTRUCK. I feel as if we’re wooed by Selznick’s design and format and overhyping the actual story, which in my opinion, pales in comparison to what Schmidt created in OKAY FOR NOW.

    I loved OKAY FOR NOW, and even though this is just a fun competition, I still would have preferred it to receive the attention of “winning” over WONDERSTRUCK. But I will survive. I may throw a hissy fit for today, but I’ll survive.

    And I think, thanks to the Undead Poll, that OKAY FOR NOW will too.

  26. Even though I read Wonderstruck and wasn’t able to get my hands on Okay for Now, I was kind of rooting for the latter to win this round because of all of the wonderful things I’ve heard about it. Based on the reactions here, I am definitely going to have to try a little harder to get a copy of this book into my hands.

    While I found the charcoal drawings of Wonderstruck lovely and captivating, the plot just didn’t seem to work as well as the enchanting Hugo did. So many times as I was reading the book I found myself being forced to suspend my disbelief that something like this would happen in real life and I just couldn’t do so. Did this stop me from enjoying the story? No, but it didn’t make me adore it, like I do some of the other books in this battle.

  27. On the question of being invested in the outcome. I’m an avid reader of the bracketed book tournaments (this one, the Tournament of Books at the Morning News, the Piglet cookbook competition at Food52), and if you look at them as an actual contest, that’s inevitably a recipe for heartbreak and anger. It is, really, a terrible way to determine which book is “best.” So it’s a good thing that this isn’t, really, what this contest is about.

    It’s about having a conversation about books, what’s good about them, what’s not so good about them. And, particularly, what standards we use to judge and compare them. The best judges’ commentaries give us a sense of why the judge chose as they did, what standard they’re using to pick an orange over an apple. That’s why I found Sy Montgomery’s coin flip so frustrating, while having no problem with Julius Lester’s infamous decision a couple years ago.

    Disagree with the decision? Tell us why, use it as an opening for a conversation, explain why that apple was so much better than the orange.

  28. No Mr. H(ufflepiffer?). Not fun. Having your heart ripped out is not fun.

    Feeling vindictive – wondering if it’s worth a student revolt to get vengeance by hiding all of Mr. Kinney’s books. Doesn’t he know I’ve purchased enough of his books to send not only his children to college but his dogs as well? Didn’t he think he owed me.? All I ask for all that shelf space is a little Doug protection.

    All I can say is, he’d better watch himself. (Not that I’m overreacting.)

  29. Emotional impact: Wonderstruck? I have to wonder if that’s the response of a visually-oriented judge to the outstanding illustrations and Selznick’s mastery of the page turn rather than a comparison of the stories themselves. Some have argued that OKAY FOR NOW had too much going on in the way of twists, & turns & revelations, but that’s what gives it its real emotional punch: you get the pitch-perfect voice of a kid in the middle of all kinds of trauma. In WONDERSTRUCK, you have a removed narrative voice that lessens the emotional impact of what is a much more straightforward story. I was pulling for OFN in this match, but that just confirms my extremely lousy bracket-picking abilities.

  30. Well, rats. I was so hoping that Okay for Now would win. But it did have its own little win in my life. My dad downloaded it during a family vacation last week, and for the last few days, I kept fielding comments: “Will I learn more about the guy in the library?” “I’m just at the part where…” and so on. He reads a lot, but I’ve never had so many comments from him on a book. He kept thanking me for gifting it (and Wednesday Wars) to him.

    So even though I’m 1 out of 8 in the brackets, it’s okay. For now.

  31. Okay, okay. I’ve had time to simmer down a bet and I’ve come to the conclusion that we have only one recourse in light of today’s decision.


    Whose with me!!!!!!!

    *Grabs pup tent, sleeping bag, and twelve cases of bottled coca-cola.*

    Let’s go!!!!!!!

  32. ::cries:: ::cries:: ::triestostopcrying:: ::cries:: I loved both of these books but I loved Okay for Now just a smidge more. I read it and raved. Then I listened to it and raved. The joy in Wonderstruck is in the first reading, you don’t get that disjointed anticipation feeling the second time around. But, Doug, he breaks your heart both times. This book has been checked out of the library since I booktalked it back in December. Again, I agree with the kid commentator about the “large emotional impact”. Who is the kid anyway? We could be book twins!

    Well, my personal record – 3 of 8. Not good at all but I stand by it. My circ records do too! Now, on to round 2. :wipeseyesandpreparestofinallyfinishlife::

  33. Battle Commander says

    OCCUPY BOB? Hmm…. I think there might be a cool graphic in that!

  34. I was the most invested in this bracket, since it’s the only one where I’d actually read both of the books (I know, I’m a slacker!). So yeah, I liked Wonderstruck, but I love Okay for Now so much!!! Sigh. I agree with all the wailers and gnashers of teeth above.

  35. *Pacing back and forth in front of BoB’s ivory tower*

    Sign reads: HELL NO, DOUG CAN’T GO!

    My tent is set up and I’m throwing out this warning: I didn’t pack any deodorant.

  36. Poor, poor Okay for Now. It’s so wonderful, and yet so unrecognized for its wonderfulness. I think this is the first match in which I am truly heartbroken.

  37. Battle Commander says

    Mr. H’s “And . . . what if some of us don’t consider all of these to be “winners” from the onset?” is totally valid! And it just goes to show how subjective literary tastes and preferences can be! We definitely try as hard as we can to put together a strong set of books representing many different aspects of Children’s and YA lit and totally don’t expect that every book will be considered by every reader as a winner. (We DO try, though! Because there are really so many excellent books published each year!)

  38. Who knew the stick figure guy was so eloquent? Based just on his tally, I would’ve picked Okay for Now, but based just on the books, I’m not sure which I would’ve picked. Once again, I don’t envy the judge this choice.

  39. I’d say you do a pretty good job. For a tournament like this I would assume you’d want a wide range of variety, so as to meet lots of different interests. Like I said, I respect all your choices, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be definite favorites among the followers during the pairings.

    I hope you know my comment wasn’t meant to be a knock at your choices . . . it was more in response to Martha’s post above about negative feelings being present. I was offering a reason WHY there may be negative feelings.

  40. I haven’t read Okay for Now yet, but since Mr. Kinney found it on audio, I think that may be the way to go for me.
    Although I love Brian Selznick, I think Wonderstruck is rather overrated, and, as others here say, good for the illustrations and clever format, but somewhat weak in plot, writing,and believability. My deaf friend called it “interesting” –meaning –it was just that.
    Incidentally, I read it with a 5th grade book group and they did not follow most of the latter part of the plot for some reason.

  41. OCCUPY BOB!!

  42. Steffaney Smith says

    Why does a really good book that so many people are passiionate about have such a BATTLE winning the “notable” awards? “Okay For Now” has been a bridesmaid too many times. Well, it’s not over ’til it’s over: Doug for the undead…..

  43. So glad I wasn’t judging this one!!!!!

  44. Sam Bloom says

    I’m sorry, did someone REALLY say OfN is “unrecognized for its wonderfulness”?! This book has had the most internet/blog buzz of any book I’ve seen in a long, long time. As of this moment, 4216 people have rated it on Goodreads and it has a 4.35 average!! I think it is beyond obvious that it will come back as the Undead poll winner, seeing as how 90% of the people commenting on this thread think it is amazing! I’m obviously in the minority here (I think OfN is way, way overrated) so I’m biased, but… geez, I think it is safe to say, Okay For Now is not exactly hurting for lovin’.

  45. Sam, just for that I am not saving a soda for you.


    DaNae, I have a tent & sleeping bag and have a ton of annoying songs to sing very loudly.


  47. Sam Bloom says

    Ha! Good one, DaNae! =) I’m not the best camper in the world anyway, so I probably would have either spilled the soda or it would have made me sick or something… 😉

  48. J Raphael says

    As far as I can tell only one person slightly touched on what makes Wonderstruck well, wonderful. There are very very few books out there for kids that give an idea of what a deaf or hard of hearing person goes through. Hearing loss is called the invisible disability. I am thrilled that a book talks (and draws) about the issues of this group! Three cheers for Wonderstruck!

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