Shoulda Been a Winner: Okay for Now

Every year the American Library Association awards the Newbery Medal to the best children’s book of the previous year by an American author.  Some years I applaud their choice; others I scratch my head and wonder.  Last year I thought (along with a lot of other library folk) that Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now was a prime contender.  It is one of the most brilliantly-written, powerful and engaging books I’ve read in a long time — and I was very disappointed when it didn’t even get a Newbery Honor award.  Still, this is MY personal 2012 Newbery winner, a superb read for youth as well as adults.

Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt (lexile: 850; AR book level: 4.9; 368 pp)

“Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.
I’m not lying.
He gave it to me.  To me, Doug Swieteck.  To me.

It was the only thing I ever owned that hadn’t belonged to some Swieteck before me.”

Eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has nothing going for him.  His older brother (who stole the Joe Pepitone cap to trade for cigarettes) is a bully, his father abusive, mother passive, and oldest brother fighting somewhere in Vietnam.  As he begins telling his story, his father has lost his job, so the family has to move to “stupid Marysville,” a small town in upstate New York where Doug is quickly labeled the “skinny thug” from the city.

Then on his second day in “stupid Marysville” Doug happens into the open-one-day-a-week Marysville library.  Upstairs he finds a single glass case displaying a book: an original volume of Audubon’s Birds of America, open to the picture of the Arctic Tern.  Doug is mesmerized, imagining that the bird is plunging to his death in the open sea, and no one even cares.  What Doug sees in the Arctic Tern is a reflection of himself.

That same day Doug is befriended by Lili Spicer, whose father owns the local grocery.  Mr Spicer offers Doug a job, delivering groceries by wagon every Saturday.  And so he begins to meet the quirky and ultimately kind residents of Marysville who will gradually draw him into their lives.

Doug goes back to the library each week, and each new bird picture displayed becomes an image of what he’s going through.  The librarian, Mr Powell, notices that Doug wants to be able to draw the birds himself.  Doug is sure he can’t, but Mr Powell gradually helps him discover his own artistic talent.  And he discovers a mission.  The town, he learns, has been selling off pages of the Audubon book one-by-one to pay bills; Doug hatches a plan to get them back.

Doug Swieteck plays a minor role in Schmidt’s earlier book, The Wednesday Wars, as the school bully.  In Okay for Now, you come to understand why Doug is a bully, and you cheer for him as he begins the difficult climb to discovering who he really is.  It’s a tough journey, with setbacks and painful secrets that Doug only gradually reveals to the reader.  But this is ultimately a redemptive story, with a tremendously hopeful ending for everyone.

And Gary Schmidt is an artist of a writer.  The plot elements, the pacing, the balance of humor and hurt, the depth of the characters, the subtle hints and images, all are woven together into a story that grabs you.  And my favorite line comes from the librarian, Mr Powell, when one character says to him near the end of the book:  “It sounds like you know what you’re talking about”:

“I’m a librarian.  I always know what I’m talking about.”

You tell ’em, Mr Powell.

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