The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award YA nominee: Gary D. Schmidt, Okay for Now

Monday, November 07, 2011

2011 National Book Award YA nominee: Gary D. Schmidt, Okay for Now

There aren't too many things around that are whole, you know.  You look hard at most anything, and it's probably beat up somewhere or other.  Beat up, or dinged up, or missing a piece, or tattooed.  Or maybe something starts out whole and then it turns into junk, like Joe Pepitone's cap getting rained on in a gutter somewhere.  Probably you can't even tell it's a cap anymore.  Probably you wouldn't even want to pick it up if you saw it.  But it didn't start that way.  It started as Joe Pepitone's cap, and when he was out in the field, the sun was beating down on it from above the stands of Yankee Stadium and he could smell the grass and the dirt of the infield beneath its brim. 
When you find something that's whole, you do what you can to keep it that way. 
And when you find something that isn't, then maybe it's not a bad idea to try to make it whole again.  Maybe.

Capturing the voice and feel of what today we might label as a "troubled youth" or "at-risk adolescent" is very difficult.  What they project to others is going to vary based on learned behaviors associated with what protects them from pain and suffering and which might provide either the best reward or at least the mitigation of punishment.  In this loose sequel to his Newberry Award-winning Wednesday Wars, Gary D. Schmidt attempts of the most difficult narrative tasks, the portrayal of such a youth, the recently-transplanted eighth grade student, Doug Swieteck, as he learns to open up adults outside his family.  It is an ambitious goal, one in which he largely succeeds.

Okay for Now is told through Doug's point-of-view.  We get glimpses at his tumultuous home life, with a belligerent and sometimes border-psychotic father; the put-upon mother who learns to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to Doug's struggles; an absent eldest brother, Lucas, who is serving in Vietnam (the story is set in the late 1960s); and a bullying middle brother who is canny enough to avoid attracting unwanted interest when it comes to doling out pain to his little brother.  Add to that Doug's reading disability and his learned aggressiveness (seen more in Wednesday Wars, of which I've only read the included excerpt) and it would be easy for any erstwhile teacher or other adult to leave Doug, like his lost Joe Pepitone-signed Yankee cap, moldering in a metaphorical gutter, devoid of hope for any sort of rehabilitation.

Yet some do see hope for Doug.  We see teachers at his new school realize that he is more than a smaller copy of his brother Christopher.  We see Doug's fascination with an old Audubon book of bird illustrations (each chapter of Okay for Now begins with one of these illustrations and Doug's commentary on how each bird relates to elements of his life) and how some of his teachers come to realize his potential and to see to the core of his academic issues.  This very easily could have been a mawkish display, similar to those plague of "heroic teacher fights against ignorance and violence to make those poor, pitiable teens become something" stories that make someone feel good about "making a difference" without ever really coming to understand those children in the first place.  Although there are occasions where it seems Schmidt tries to cram in too many of these examples of compassionate adults, he wisely banishes these to the sidelines and lets Doug speak for himself, struggle to find himself, with immense payoffs at the novel's end.

Schmidt's narrative is compelling, not just because it rings true for me as a teacher of "at risk" and "emotionally disturbed" children for several years, but because it illustrates the hope that these students have without ever dismissing or diminishing the thorny issues they face.  Schmidt shows Doug's continuing family issues and how they evolve over time in a way that feels natural and not overdone.  He reveals through Doug's matter-of-fact style of narration how Doug learns to love to learn literature such as Jane Eyre and to relate to the characters despite the fact that his hitherto-undiagnosed learning disability in reading makes it very difficult for me to learn any other way than to listen to the instructor.  Scenes such as this strike an emotional chord for me, as I have seen such unlikely epiphanies and these are transformative for students and teachers alike.  That Schmidt manages to keep Doug's story grounded and not to over-emphasize such "breakthroughs" is a testament to his understanding of his protagonist's background and the struggles that remain.  Okay for Now certainly is a fitting title for what we see unfold in this novel.

At first, I was skeptical that Schmidt could capture these little breakthroughs without blowing them out of proportion.  As the story continued, I changed from being distrusting of the story's basic premise to becoming quite curious about what might happen next.  Okay for Now remains true to itself and to its source material.  It is a novel that readers from middle school on up can read and discuss for some time to come.  Perhaps my greatest compliment is my desire, if feasible, to purchase a print copy (I read this on my iPad) and leave it in my classroom for my students to discover.  I suspect they are the ones who will have the most to say and I believe they would relate even more to Doug's situation than I, the teacher of several similar youth, ever could.  Certainly worthy of its nomination as a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

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