TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
I'm already in love with Gary D. Schmidt for writing 2007's Newbery Honor book, "The Wednesday Wars." In his forthcoming novel, "Okay for Now" — which I scored in advance through Net Galley; huzzah! — we follow one year in the life of Doug Swieteck, a minor character in the Vietnam era "The Wednesday Wars." "Okay for Now" is just about a perfect middle school novel. It's filled with endearing characters, heartwrenching coming of age incidents, plenty of self-deprecating humor and laughs, and such rich, honest emotion that I found myself smiling through tears several times. If this book does not receive, at the very least, another Newbery Honor, there is truly no justice in the world of children's books!
The Vietnam War is still raging in the summer of 1968 when the troubled Swieteck family moves from Long Island to the tiny upstate town of Marysville, New York. Doug's father is a drinker and a bully, his older brother (unnamed through much of the story) is a budding thug, and his beleaguered mom is doing her best to keep on a brave face, especially while oldest brother Lucas is off fighting in the war. To supplement the family's very modest earnings — dad is hanging on to a menial job in the local lumber mill — Doug begins a weekly Saturday morning job delivering groceries to Marysville residents. Among other residents along his route, he meets the eccentric playwright Mrs. Windermere, who has a fondness for ice cream, a yearning for the god of creativity, and a soft spot in her curmudgeonly heart for "skinny delivery boys." The passages depicting Doug's journeys with his grocery-laden wagon, particularly in the steamy summer months and frigid winter ones, are alternately hysterical and deeply touching … and sometimes both!
Each Saturday after finishing his route, on the only day it is opened each week, Doug visits the Marysville Public Library. He is intrigued by John James Audubon's striking picture of a crashing arctic tern and its "terrified eye." Kindly librarian (woot!) Mr. Powell notices his interest and patiently, slowly teaches Doug how to draw the tern and other majestic birds from the glass-encased Audubon book. Each chapter of "Okay for Now" begins with an Audubon plate and relates a theme from the given picture to Doug's own life, his family, and his burgeoning artistic talent. If this sounds horribly boring, I swear it's not! It is a charming device, completely original, and a lovely, subtle way of depicting Doug's journey of growth and self-discovery. Along the way, we learn that cash-strapped Marysville is selling off pages from the priceless Audubon book, leading to a subplot where a determined Doug vows to make the precious book whole again.
Why should you care about a boy from the 1960s who spends his free time drawing Audubon birds? I understand your skepticism! But Doug is such a superbly crafted character that you will eagerly turn the pages to follow his story. Doug is a total middle school boy in his love of baseball (and the Yankee's Joe Pepitone!), his sense of humor, his blossoming affection for the grocer's spunky daughter, Lil, and his quiet protection of his mom and family. But Doug is also presented as a real, multidimensional kid, so he often retreats into a petulant dislike of "stupid" Marysville; he doubts his own talents and abilities; he mouths off to the gym teacher and school principal (although it's deserved in both cases!); and he abandons projects as soon as obstacles appear. In other words, he's relatable and flawed. Doug is also special, as he stubbornly, fiercely guards the kinds of secrets no 8th grade boy should have to carry. Doug is a great combination of bravery, heart, and humor, and he possesses both a rebellious nature and an optimistic spirit. I ADORED HIM!
What else works here? I loved how gently encouraging so many of the adults are toward Doug, who is in a world of pain from his father's drinking and abuse. Besides Mr. Powell and Mrs. Windermere, the lumber mill owner, grocer, and two teachers take a keen interest in Doug, while the seemingly sadistic gym teacher (later shown to be a tormented Vietnam veteran) eventually plays a pivotal role in Doug's life. So much of the story involves cultivating the hidden promise and potential in people — not just Doug, but his wounded brother Lucas, spit upon and rejected by war protesters and small-minded neighbors; his older brother, finally revealed as Christopher, who is so much more complex than his sullen exterior and criminal reputation suggest; and even his sweet yet steely mother, who looks upon a gifted orchid like it's a treasure. Along these lines, there is also a wonderful theme about life being full of incredible possibilities — this is the era of the moon walk, after all — such that even a poor, uneducated kid like Doug with, frankly, a brutal home life, can imagine himself free and soaring. Rock on!
So, yeah, there's also a bit of romance, some babysitting adventures, a Broadway play, a plastic toy rocking horse named Clarence, and some truly quirky, almost screwball elements thrown in. Does all of it work? For the most part. By the time Doug's hero Joe Pepitone shows up at Jane Eyre on Broadway, I was fully prepared to suspend any and all disbelief and just go along for the sweet ride. I think you will be, too. Read "Okay for Now" for its insight into the late 1960s, its realistic characters, its many laugh out loud scenes, its incredibly heartfelt moments — I dare you not to cry when Doug plays on the skins basketball team for the first time! — and its lovely depictions of friendship, hope, redemption, and possibility. In the story, Doug immediately relates to the nobility of Audubon's brown pelican; for me, this wonderful, funny, uplifting novel has a beautiful nobility all its own.
PS – My one criticism: I can live with the so-so title, but the cover featuring a boy with a bag on his head? Really? Oh, Houghton Mifflin, I know you can do so much better.