Gary Schmidt’s newest stand-alone novel, Okay For Now, is a companion to his Newbery Honor winner, The Wednesday Wars, and the protagonist in the new book was one of the secondary characters in the former.
So before I get to Okay For Now, I would just like to say: If you haven’t yet read The Wednesday Wars, go out and do it right now. If you start reading it now, skip dinner, and stay up really late, you might be able to get it done by the time Okay For Now comes out on April 5 (yes, I know that’s tomorrow). I love Holling in The Wednesday Wars, a bright seventh-grader with a wry sense of humor and a teacher that hates him “with heat whiter than the sun,” because he is the only student in her class that does not leave Wednesday afternoons for religion class. So she makes him study Shakespeare. The book is funny and touching, and I challenge you—even if you hate (or think you hate) Shakespeare—to keep from laughing when Holling tries out some of the curses from The Tempest.
So when I received my advance reader’s copy of Okay For Now, I was excited to see which of Holling’s friends would be the star. This excitement lasted until the fourth sentence.
Doug Swietek. The class bully—and the youngest of three brothers in a family of bullies. An unlikeable character if you ever saw one, Doug is obnoxious and belligerent, with a chip on his shoulder the size of Quasimodo’s hump. The only brother still at home regularly beats him up, and his sarcastic comments often get him in trouble with his father’s “quick hands.” As the book opens, he tells us that his father, no slouch in the belligerent department himself, has just picked a fight with his boss and been fired. His dad’s old drinking buddy has found him a new job in the small town of Marysville, and three days later, the family moves. Doug hates their new house and the small town.
On his first day in town, he wanders through the town library. Upstairs is a large room, empty except for a large table covered with a glass case. And under the glass is the most amazing thing he has ever seen. An open book, a huge book with pages longer than a baseball bat, and the page is open to a painting of a bird: a lonely bird with one terrified eye, falling out of the sky toward the ocean, trying in vain to break its fall, a falling bird all alone…”and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.”
I didn’t realize then that Doug was describing himself.
The book under glass is one of the volumes drawn by Audubon himself. Mr. Powell, a librarian, notices Doug’s interest, recognizing a passionate, budding artist under the surly exterior. He brings art supplies and starts to explain the principles of art in Audubon’s Arctic Tern. And as Doug learns more about drawing and perspective and proportion and composition, he begins to understand his feelings and the people he meets.
Okay For Now is every bit as funny as its companion, but it is also darker and sadder. Both Doug and I were appalled to find out that some of the plates from Audubon’s book were disappearing because the town fathers were selling them off to collectors. I almost cried when, after Doug refused to be on the Skins’ team in basketball, his “So-Called Gym Teacher” grabbed his shirt and tore it off—revealing to everyone what Doug’s father had done to him under that shirt. I was disgusted when, after picking up Doug’s oldest brother who was returning from Vietnam a bit “dinged up,” Doug and his family ended up in the middle of a Stop the War protest. And I was furious when the school principal told Doug something that no school principal should ever tell a student.
But Okay For Now, taking place as it does in the year before man’s first moon landing, is ultimately a hopeful book. It ends with hope for Audubon’s book, hope for Doug’s brother, hope even for that So-Called Gym Teacher. But most of all, there is hope for Doug. About six pages from the end, Doug describes the Arctic Tern one more time. Make sure you compare it with his first description of the bird, and then give a cheer and/or wipe a tear.
Give this book to kids who like historical fiction, art, and a good story. Give this book to teachers who need a good read-aloud, and to English teachers who need a book to teach good metaphors, strong characterization, and higher level thinking skills. Actually, just give this book to everybody.