Last night, huddled around several bottles of chilled white wine, crisp salad, and buttered bread, a group of Children’s Librarian’s staved off the heat while discussing 2012 Newbery contenders Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt and Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm.
Both authors have been acknowledged by previous Newbery committees. Gary Schmidt wrote Newbery Honor books Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2005) and The Wednesday Wars (2008). Jennifer L. Holm wrote Newbery Honor books A Penny from Heaven (2007) and Turtle in Paradise (2011).
We had a lot to say about Mr. Schmidt’s amazing Okay for Now. Where to start?!
THIS POST IS FULL OF SPOILERS!
We talked about Doug as the narrator and his relationship to the reader. From the first, Doug is on the defensive.
Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankess baseball cap.
I’m not lying.
He gave it to me. To me, Doug Swieteck. To me (p 1).
Doug will often insist he’s not lying when he tells us about something good that has happened. He doesn’t trust the reader so he questions and entreats. “Figure out why (p 110).” He repeats other phrases, mirroring his father in that habit, and sometimes repeating his father’s expressions. “You see how things never go right when you’re feeling good” (p 63)? He’s suspicious. Do we really care what’s happening to him? Are we paying him any attention? How closely?
By the way, in case you weren’t paying attention or something, did you catch what Mr. Powell called me? “Young Artist.” I bet you missed that (p 75).
Like it’s no big deal if we weren’t paying attention – why would Doug care – but… just so you know, Mr. Powell called him a young artist. You know how that feels?
I love how Doug manipulates his reader! He sprinkles his descriptions with pessimism and doubt and humor. Things so rarely go well for him. When they do, he tries to hold on. Joe Pepitone’s hat, the jacket, the pencil smudge on his thumb (p 77). He longs for something of his own. Something permanent/reliable/stable. Some of Doug’s descriptions might be considered exaggerations, but it’s really more of an indication that things are that bad or that good for Doug.
I stood out there for a couple of minutes. To be as thirsty as I was, you’d have to be in the French Foreign Legion and lost somewhere out in the Sahara for a week (p 47).
Miss Cowper and I, we looked each other in the eye. Maybe, I thought, maybe everything is not ruined forever (p 127).
So Doug is like his father but also unlike his father for he notices his mother and loves her. Look at his depiction of Audobon’s Red-Throated Divers:
And the mother? Her neck was turned all around about as far as it could possible go, and she was looking far away, at something a long way out from the picture. She was looking at a place she wanted to go but couldn’t, because she didn’t know how to get away (p 54).
“Some family,” I said. “No one’s paying attention to the mother. Who could blame her if she took off. Look at them” (p 68).
Doug looks at the Audobon pictures in the library and sees his family, his life. He reveals his feelings through his descriptions of them. He sees the paths he could take. But it takes someone else’s perspective for him to see a more hopeful picture/future.
“Skinny Delivery Boy, you have it all wrong. Look at how she’s standing close to her little one. She’s looking around to watch for the next spectacular thing that’s going to come into his life” (p 68).
And this, my colleague Priscilla said, shows us that we never really know what’s happening in a kid’s life and that one adult can make a difference, can inspire.
This led into a discussion of Doug’s internal conflict. Does he follow in the paths of his father and brothers – acting the jerk and hoodlum – or does he try something else? Priscilla asked how and to whom this book would circulate (none of us were fond of the cover but it isn’t awful, we agreed). “Would it work outside a book club?” I suggested it could be paired with a reader who enjoys dystopia. The community Doug lives in is, in many ways, wrong. Most of his teachers mistreat him. The town folk are suspicious of him once the grocer is robbed (How often does Doug say, “I hate this town.”). His father and brother treat Doug cruelly. Even the shushing Mrs. Everything-has-to-Be-Cataloged-This-Second librarian seems against him.
He has few allies: Lil Spicer, Mr. Powell, and Mr. Ferris. Doug is at the critical point in his development where he will either embrace his father’s world view, striking out at others in his frustration, or he will embrace the opportunity to change and better himself.
I like how Schmidt slowly reveals Doug’s illiteracy. At first, Doug pretends he didn’t see the street signs as he makes his deliveries (p 41). Then he deflects Principal Peattie’s request to read a school rule, joking about the bathroom policy (p 82). Then his brother (still nameless) rats him out (p 84). And suddenly, it all makes sense. That’s why he won’t be reading Jane Eyre.
Once that mystery is solved, Schmidt stealthily sets another one. Doug briefly mentions he sneaked over to the shirts team when Coach Reed wasn’t looking (p 111). Now, the first time through, I thought nothing of this, as Doug would probably expect because no one really pays attention. But he’s not a hoodlum and he wouldn’t pull any funny business without a reason.
Then Doug sees the Black-Backed Gull and we realize just how much these drawings have come to mean to Doug.
I would have given Joe Pepitone’s jacket to save the bird (p 115).
This is also when Doug learns the Large-Billed Puffins, the Arctic Tern and the Red-Throated Diver have been sold. This brings us Priscilla’s favorite passage. Doug, in detention, has asked Mr. Ferris if he believes the principal’s Audobon belongs back in the book it came from.
Mr. Ferris smiled. “In general, I adhere to the notion that things belong in the class to which they have been assigned” (p 125).
What a beautiful line! “Are there teachers like this anymore?” Priscilla asks. Now, my sister revered her eighth grade teacher and excelled in math because of it. While I never had a close relationship like that, I knew which teachers took the time and which didn’t. And who says it has to be a teacher? It could be a Librarian, a coach, a Big Brother or Sister or some other adult who just takes the time to notice and be patient.
And so the seed for Doug’s mission is planted. This led to a discussion about community today. Priscilla asked, “Could a kid do something like this today?” Probably not. Those Audon’s would have been sold on eBay to a buyer half a world away. What are the chances of meeting a Broadway playwright down the street? It’s improbable in the book but it would be completely unbelievable in a contemporary setting. Does this detract from the rest of the book? No.
I love how Doug turns the tables on us. He started out keeping secrets but while Miss Cowper is teaching him to read (p 129), Doug demands, “How come no one ever told me this stuff?” Secrets are being kept from him! He is accusatory and incredulous and it is so wonderful! We are readers, after all, marveling in his narration.
Look at the sentence structure in this book. From the one word sentences (Terrific) to the select times Schmidt uses very long sentences (p 3, 158).
Ok, I must stop here. I have far too many sticky notes sticking out of my library copy. I’m going to purchase my own copy tomorrow.
Our little group recently decided to add a former Newbery winner to our reading list. Last meeting we discussed the atmospheric The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. This time around, we read The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinnley. There are some torrid passages that had us asking, “If published this year, would this book win a Newbery or would it be the most challenged book of the year?”
“My love, I feel it only fair to warn you that I am feeling quite alert and strong tonight, and if you choose to sleep with me again, it is not sleep you will be getting.”
“Then I look forward to no sleep whatsoever,” Aerin said contentedly, and Luthe laughed and dropped his spoon (p 191).
Okay for Now | Gary D. Schmidt | Library copy | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | Clarion Books | © 2011 | 360 pages | ISBN 978-0-547-15260-8 | $16.99
The Hero and the Crown | Robin McKinley | Library copy | Penguin Putnam Inc. | Ace Edition | © 1984 | 227 pages | ISBN 0-441-32809-1 | $5.99