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The Big Kahuna Match: Between Shades of Gray vs Life: An Exploded Diagram vs Okay for Now
|Okay for Now
by Gary D. Schmidt
|Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
|Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
When those fine people at School Library Journal asked me to judge the conclusion of this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I knew at once it was a great honour. What I didn’t know, exactly, was what a “Big Kahuna” actually was. To me it conjured an image of a patriarchal sort of cove, wearing an impressive white beard, a set of mercifully long robes and a pair of leather sandals. Probably sitting resplendent on some kind of throne. Well, I did the best I could. The beard is false, the robes are itchy, and instead of a throne I’ve got a fold-up picnic chair, but that’s all incidental. What matters is what I’ve been reading. Three superb books, the hard-won finalists of a magnificent competition.
Here’s something I discovered right off. It doesn’t matter how big your beard is, sitting in judgement is a tricky job.
Or at least it is when each of the books is so individually excellent and tonally distinctive. And when their subject matter is so apparently disparate: love and sex in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis; enduring the unimaginable horrors of Stalinist persecutions; the life of a kid growing up in Vietnam-era small-town America. How do you adjudicate something like that?
Well, for a start you look for parallels, and before long you notice that this year’s competition has thrown up a couple of definite themes. The first, clearly, is how big stuff, in the shape of global events, plays out upon our little lives. We’re talking about the fragility of the individual, the ease with which we might be crushed or tossed aside. We’re also talking about our response to that knowledge; and, thrillingly, each one of our finalists stands up like a Tiananmen Square protester before the oncoming tank of history, eyes it straight down the barrel and, while acknowledging its brutal strength, still finds cause for hope.
Where does that hope reside? In the redemptive power of art.
Three books, three protagonists. And each one of our heroes finds the act of drawing to be the crucial means of self-expression and self definition. It’s both a defense against the world, and a way of engaging with it. A window and a shield. It helps them transcend the limitations of their lives and, if not actually escape, then at the very least endure.
First up: Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. Reading this, I couldn’t help but marvel that we Brits ever manage to procreate at all. We’re in the dour, phlegmatic flatlands of Norfolk, in the grim, grey years following the Second World War. It’s all rationing, resentment, religious mania, sexual repression. Luckily our guide, Clem Ackroyd, has an eye for the telling detail that renders everything bright like crystal. He ought to. His favourite painter is Juan Sánchez Cotán, whose still lives are so naturalistic they acquire supernatural beauty. Fruit and vegetables sit on a ledge; behind is blackness. Clem observes that “those humble and edible objects, have their backs to that void. They bathe in the brevity of light, casting their modest shadows onto the stone. They say, they insist, that they briefly exist… ‘Look how commonplace and how beautiful we are.'”
This principle informs the book, which is full of iridescent imagery, bright words scattered about like seeds, illuminating the shabby and numinous alike. “Washing blew on the line… her mother’s bloomers ballooned by the wind, their elasticated leg holes pouting.” “Sun, in beams as clearly defined as searchlights, straked the sky.”
In Clem’s emotionally costive childhood, the elasticated bloomers side of things very much rules; but here comes the sun, in the exotically part-French-Canadian form of Frankie, rich, beautiful and smelling of sweat, strawberries “and something like vanilla ice cream.” Clem discovers he has a sweet tooth, and soon he’s making tender, ecstatic sketches of Frankie’s half-naked form during their barn-loft trysts. In those moments he allows himself to believe “that instead of being in history he was in love,” but the big stuff is all around him, and is closing in fast. At first, mind you, it seems it might give Clem a helping hand: the Kennedy-Khrushchev crisis provides the very world-ending excuse he needs to persuade Frankie to finally agree to _____. (It’s no good. I’m simply too British to spell it out. Insert euphemism of your choice here.) And sure enough, this works out nicely – for a few minutes anyway, before the cruel arbitrariness of history reasserts itself, and Clem and Frankie are, literally, torn apart.
Clem’s a survivor, and he doesn’t give up on art. He goes on to be an illustrator, doing “hyper-realistic spreads” of cars and spacecraft. But something’s been lost from those fragile, lust-wracked drawings made in the barn’s half-darkness, and joy is confined to memory. We’re left with the glittering surface consolations of life’s transient beauty, and of Mal Peet’s mastery of words.
Downbeat as the English 1950s might well have been, they didn’t really hold a candle to 1940s Lithuania, where Ruta Sepetys’ extraordinary Between Shades of Gray begins. It’s got wide-screen maps at the front, the better to ram home the unimaginable distances Lina Vilkas and her family – and countless other victims of Stalin’s ethnic purges – were required to travel, while undergoing appalling privation. Altai Labor Camp; Biysk; Yakutsk; Trofimovsk… you don’t need a degree in geography to guess these places are pretty grim; when combined with the hideous cruelty of the NKVD it’s incredible anyone survived at all. Lina is a fictional character, but her experiences are those of real people, and the clear authenticity of the account chills you like a Siberian wind. It’s a measure of the writer’s skill that what could quickly numb us with its horrors instantly acquires the remorseless grip and momentum of the best of thrillers. The opening chapters, where Lina, her brother Jonas, and her mother, Elena, are arrested by the Russians, are brilliantly judged. It’s all over in a handful of pages, as swift, brutal and abrupt as the act itself. The little boy readies his school bag instead of a suitcase, not guessing this is the end of childhood; if he ever returns, it will be as a grown man.
This is Sánchez Cotán’s void reaching out to engulf us, and now only the strongest moral flames will remain alight. One of these is Elena Vilkas, who has a “beautiful spirit,” and whose “cup overflowed with love for everyone and everything around her, even the enemy.” Her radiance helps protect Lina, even in the darkest places; but Lina has another secret weapon too. She is drawing.
Before the purges began, Lina was rather taken with the work of Edvard Munch. She responds to his virtuosity, to his raw depictions of pain, decay and death. As she breezily informs her parents:
“He said ‘From my rotting body flowers shall grow, and I am in them and that is eternity.’ Isn’t that beautiful?”
Papa smiled at me: “You’re beautiful because you see it that way.”
When death really comes calling, all trace of adolescent morbidity falls away. Here in the camps, art has a proper job to do. Secretly Lina records daily events in all their vileness: it is a testament of what is being done to them. She also draws coded messages for her father – lost somewhere in Russia’s vastness – and gives them to others to be passed on, hand to hand, in the hope they will one day reach him. She doesn’t know if her father is alive; if he ever gets the messages, he won’t know if she survives. The importance is all in the passing down – in keeping the message alive. This is art devolving into its most primal form: a defiant statement of existence. I am not – I was not – nothing. I reject the void.
Ruta Sepetys has passed the message on to us, sketching the incomprehensible in plain, clear lines. She shows us love, hope and tenderness flourishing in hell, and in doing so has created an unputdownable book. Recommend this. Hand it on in turn.
I don’t know about you, but I reckon book characters, like real people, fall broadly into two classes. “Radiators” and “Drains.” “Radiators” emit warmth and light – they nourish and inspire. You’re re-energised by their presence. “Drains” subtly draw energy from you, suck out your life force, like coke being drawn through a straw.
Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now is most definitely a radiator. When he comes to Marysville, in 1969, the odds are stacked against him. His nameless father’s lost to drink and truculent self-pity; one brother’s a miserable bully, the other lies absent, and terribly injured, out in Vietnam. But all’s not lost. Doug’s got his mother (“You think Elizabeth Taylor can smile? If you saw my mother’s smile you wouldn’t even let Elizabeth Taylor in the same room.”), and she’s a soul-cousin to Elena Vilkas, radiant and enduring. Even better, he’s got his own nature. Doug’s honest, brave, witty and generous, and if he wins over the whole town by the end of the book he won over this reader within a couple of pages. Probably about the time he first uses the word “chump.”
Doug’s narrative voice is a thing of wonder. It’s perfectly balanced, attuned both to the comic and the sublime. Here’s him contemplating Fall:
The trees were reddening and yellowing. You could see the color moving like a slow tide down the hills that rose on both sides of stupid Maryville…. Except the trees around The Dump [his house]. Their leaves turned brown and dropped.
When all’s said and done, this is friendship talking. Doug’s right there with you, and you want to go out and throw horseshoes with him, or share a cold coke with ice coming down the sides.
Which isn’t to say Doug doesn’t have a favourite artist too. He does. It’s John James Audubon, whose Birds of America sits in Marysville library, minus some pages they’ve sliced out and sold off to make ends meet, a neat metaphor for Doug’s messed-up life, and of course for the whole beautiful, wounded USA.
Enraptured by the art, Doug begins to draw himself out of a bad place. And we quickly find that Audubon’s birds not only have the realistic surface perfection of a Sánchez Cotán’s painting, but also the emotional intensity of a Munch. Take the black-backed gull with a broken wing: “His head was pulled far back, like he was taking one last look at the sky that he would never fly in again. And his round eye told you he knew that everything was ruined forever.”
Like Clem, like Lina, Doug learns, through art, to engage with life: it’s a slow, dedicated commitment to embracing the pain as well as the joys. So he looks at his mother, “[watching] her smile and wondering how I could ever draw it, it was that beautiful.” And he looks on too when his mother greets his broken brother, legless and almost blind: “She held Lucas’ face in both her hands. Her blue coat was spread out, and it covered them both like wide wings.”
Doug looks. And, because of the generosity of his nature, he finds hope out there, even in the void. This commitment to life is very attractive. By the end, everyone’s with him. I’m not sure I believe the world could ever be quite this accommodating, even to such a remarkable boy as Doug, but I sure as heck would like it to be so. (Actually Gary D. Schmidt knows we can’t have everything, and he takes care to leave one really BIG bit of the jigsaw just out of position as the book closes. We think it’ll end all right, but we don’t know. All of us have to keep the faith.)
Okay, it’s time for the Big Kahuna to unhook his beard, hitch up his robes (not too high), and steal away, leaving three fine books behind him on the picnic chair. They’re all first-rate, but for its humour, its poignancy, for its serious heart and lightness of touch, above all for the continual joy it gave me, my choice for this year’s winning book is Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now.
— Judge Jonathan Stroud
Terrific, indeed! But wait! What of the rumors that Bartimaeus would co-opt this decision? I had hoped that he would somehow worm his way into the seventh plane and pluck his buddy Brimstone into an already crowded final round. Ah, well. Nevertheless, this is sure to be an extremely popular decision, and it harkens back to the very first year of the BOB when fan favorite THE HUNGER GAMES won the title. In the fantasy scenario in which—ahem—I judge every round and determine the Undead winner, I had AMELIA LOST vs. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE vs. LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM. So it stands to reason that I, like RGN, would have picked LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM. But I am not unhappy with OKAY FOR NOW and am quite pleased to see this accolade go on Gary’s fireplace mantel next to the National Book Award finalist medallion necklace thingy; the Odyssey Honor trophy hardware goes to the publisher, I believe. Like many of you, I have really enjoyed the addition of the kid commentators this year, and find it interesting that both of them favored one of the YA titles over the juvenile titles. Take note, Heavy Medalers, that we should never, ever underestimate a child audience. Many thanks to all our judges, especially to our Big Kahuna, and to all of our followers. See you next year!
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Please join us in congratulating
OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt
for winning the
2012 Battle of the Kids’ Books.
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