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“The Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Man, do I love me some Maggie Stiefvater. If you haven’t read “The Scorpio Races” yet, (a) for shame!, and (b) do yourself a huge favor and get on that immediately. [Read my rave review here if you don’t believe me!] Maggie’s latest book, “The Raven Boys,” will be published by Scholastic in September 2012. Fortunately for me, I was in the right place at the right time during the daily 9 am Book Expo stampede o’ booths and was able to snag an advanced copy. “The Raven Boys” is a story about boarding school boys and a somewhat clairvoyant girl who use magic to wake a sleeping Welsh King. I know. I KNOW! But it’s really a story about friendship and sacrifice, and it is just so phenomenally written — just so expertly conveyed on every possible level — that what may seem like a silly premise underlies a wondrously captivating story.

I’ll try to do some gentle, non-spoily plot summary. We start on St. Mark’s Eve, as teenage Blue and her psychic aunt, Neeve, are recording the names of those who will die in the coming year as their spirits pass by. Blue acts like an amplifier for her aunt’s talents, in much the same way she does for her own mom, Maura, and a houseful of eccentric psychics. Blue is not a seer, so she is startled to encounter the spirit form of a boy from nearby Aglionby Academy. The tormented boy says his name is Gansey and “that’s all there is.” Neeve warns Blue that seeing Gansey can only mean one of two things, that she is either his true love, or that she will kill him. Gah! Because, folks, being Blue’s true love is no great prize either, as it’s been long prophesied that Blue will kill the first boy she kisses. Kinda awkward, right? 😉

Shortly after St. Mark’s Eve, Blue, while working her part-time job at a pizzeria, encounters a very much alive Gansey — think a teenage politician, “shiny and powerful” — as well as his friends: hostile, anguished Ronan, with a neck tattoo and a world of anger radiating off him; stalwart Adam, an off-campus tuition student from the wrong side of the Henrietta, VA tracks who bears abuse and responsibility like he does everything else, quietly and painfully; and the “smudgy” Noah, a sort of loving puppy dog type who always hangs on the periphery of the group. Gansey leaves behind his rather impressive journal detailing his efforts to locate a ley line (a surging line of magical power) and raise the sleeping King Glendower, who will grant him a favor. As Blue befriends the boys — and falls for Adam — she quickly discovers that the Glendower quest is Gansey’s entire life, and, for better or worse, a mission shared with equal zealotry but for very different reasons by Ronan, Adam, and Noah.

Blue is drawn into the quest herself and helps the boys discover where the ley line lies in Cabeswater, an eerie time bubble in the woods. In Cabeswater, thoughts and wishes can appear in corporeal form before your eyes; whole seasons pass while time on the outside remains still; trees communicate (in Latin!), issuing vague warnings and advice; a haunted beech provides visions of the future, including a fatal near-kiss between Blue and Gansey; and if someone performs an unspecified — but deadly! — sacrifice, the long dormant ley line will awaken and Glendower will most likely be theirs.

There’s much more going on in “The Raven Boys,” including the mystery of Blue’s father, who disappeared years before, and the dark magic behind Neeve’s visit to Henrietta. There is also an old, unsolved murder and a villainous Latin teacher who seeks Glendower for his own. If this all seems a bit out there, well, it is. I can’t and won’t argue that point. I will say / shout from the rafters that Maggie crafts this story so beautifully, slowly revealing secrets (Noah!) and adding layer upon layer of complexity to her characters. That’s what I loved the most about “The Raven Boys,” that these characters are compellingly crafted and so stinking real. Ronan, in particular, is incredibly complicated; he’s in so much pain that he has become a powder keg of volatile rage and raw physicality, yet he can break your heart with his tenderness to both his friends and a tiny raven foundling. And Gansey … oh boy, where can I even start? Gansey, the supremely wealthy and capable teen who was nearly killed by hornets as a child, is a strange combination of strength, poise, and fear. Gansey is terrified that he will fail his friends, his family, and his quest, and his struggle to be responsible for everyone and everything ends in disastrous results.

While “The Raven Boys” ends rather abruptly — which, I get, first book in a series, but it’s REALLY abrupt — I can live with it. This book is so achingly beautiful, filled with such evocative descriptions, amazingly rendered characters, and lovely explorations of friendship, that I can forgive the somewhat jarring ending. You must read “The Raven Boys” when it releases in September. Promise me, ok? Then you can join me in this awful anticipation as we wait until 2013 to find out what happens to Blue, Adam, Gansey, and the gang!

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Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Summer I Learned to Fly” by Dana Reinhardt

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Dana Reinhardt's "The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a quiet, charming novel about the summer of 1986, a pivotal moment in Robin Drew "Birdie" Solo's life. Birdie, fresh out of school, is helping her widowed mom run her new business, the local cheese shop. Each sunny California day at the shop, Birdie makes pasta with handsome surfer Nick, chats with lovable Swoozie, and does her best to keep her treasured rat, Humboldt Fog, out of mom's sights and safely hidden in her backpack. When Birdie discovers leftover cheese is continually being removed from the alley trash, she stumbles upon Emmett Crane, a quirky teen boy with a shady past and a penchant for making paper cranes. Emmett becomes Birdie's first true friend, leading her through a summer of heartache and discovery that concludes with an unexpected adventure far from home.

I hesitate to provide more details about the plot, because part of the joy of reading "The Summer I Learned to Fly" lies in its slow, careful revelation of Emmett's secrets. So let me simply tell you why I enjoyed this book so much; then you can learn all the details when you go out and read it yourself. :-p

Though set in the mid-80s, Birdie's story has a timeless quality to it. This book is most definitely not the kind that gets bogged down in the the latest fashions or the coolest gadgets. This book is, instead, a rich, layered story about human relationships. Reinhardt beautifully depicts Birdie and Emmett's shy friendship, in which Birdie finally discovers how much of the world opens up when you have a true friend by your side. Reinhardt also provides other relationships to cherish, including Birdie and Nick's so much more than a summer crush friendship, in which Birdie gracefully accepts Nick's girlfriend, and a mother-daughter bond that is frayed, challenged, and somehow strengthened as Birdie grows up and mom tries to move past her grief.

"The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a lyrical, subtle story about real people, in which all aspects of real life — joy, pain, sorrow, exuberance, fear, growth — are conveyed with depth, warmth, and genuine emotion. I had read one of Reinhardt's books in the past ("How to Build a House") and wasn't nearly as bowled over as I was here. There are so many perfect, authentic touches here, such as Birdie's guilt in reading her deceased dad's journal-like "Book of Lists"; Emmett's well-crafted crane messages, full of sorrow and hope; and the love and beauty that can be poured into pasta making. Perhaps those moments are what made this is a truly incandescent read for me. Regardless of why, I can tell you I found "The Summer I Learned to Fly" to be a wonderful, heartfelt story about a final, glorious summer of childhood innocence. I highly recommend it to boys and girls in early middle school and higher.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Probability of Miracles” by Wendy Wunder

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Another review. Another advanced copy from the great folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers. Life is hard. :-p

"The Probability of Miracles" is a "dying teen" novel, a trend we've seen often the last few years in books like Chris Crutcher's "Deadline," Jenny Downham's "Before I Die," and even Gayle Forman's lovely "If I Stay." Before the gloom frightens you away, I have to say that although our teen protagonist here has terminal cancer, "The Probability of Miracles" is sharp, uplifting, and, dare I say it, funny in an acerbic, biting way. Yes, there are poignant moments and tears — folks, it's *terminal* cancer — but I found most of this book to be an absolute pleasure to read. What a nice surprise!

You know what else I liked? Our girl Cam here is half-Samoan. How rare is that to see in a YA novel? Even better, Cam is an active participant in her culture, particularly in the ancient art of hula dancing. Deep down, Cam is terrified of her future, so she uses sarcasm and emotional distance as her defenses. Despite closing herself off from her family and lone best friend, Cam opens her heart and connects to the world through music and hula dancing. It is where the real Cam shines. The scenes where she tells a friend's story through hula are evocative and beautifully done.

Interestingly, much of Cam's hula is relegated to the Polynesian luau at Disney World. Cam's now deceased father and her Italian-American mom were both Polynesian performers at Disney, where Cam now also works. When Cam's doctors advise her to end treatment — no more children's hospitals or new drug trials — her mom seeks help through an alternative means: the small, hidden town of Promise, Maine. Miracles are said to happen in Promise, and all Cam has left is a miracle. Or so her mom thinks. Cam herself has no more hope, no more joy in discovering the possibilities that life may still offer. Although Cam agrees to stay in Promise for the summer, she's basically just waiting to die.

Through a series of implausible events, all of which are in the spirit of this unconventional tale and family, Cam, her mom, her half-sister Perry, and her bird Tweety find themselves living in a seaside Promise house owned by the family of sweet, patient, handsome (of course!) teen Asher. Cam eventually stops cloistering herself long enough to volunteer for the local veterinarian — cute puppy and, er, baby flamingo alert! — and start hanging out with Asher and the preppy, beautiful people she calls the "catalog kids." When Cam finally opens herself up to Asher, she falls completely in love. There are some magical moments, as Cam does at least as much to "save" Asher as he does to help her live again. Plus, there are some magical moments in general, since Promise is a miracle place with endless sunsets, puppies who come back from the dead, and roving flocks of flamingos. Author Wendy Wunder does a commendable job of balancing the serious elements (Cam is, after all, dying); some lighthearted fun (Cam, Asher, and the catalog kids win a Make a Wish trip to — you guessed it — Disney World); family tension; first love; and the wonder and beauty inherent in everyday, small miracles. I found the mix here to be delightful.

"The Probability of Miracles" comes out in December 2011 (why not a summer release for this tale of one summer, Penguin?). It is an engaging story with plenty of warmth and heart that never loses its sharp edge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I'd say this one is geared for a high school audience, based on the themes here and some teen drinking and drug use, but see what you think. For more information, check out the book's Amazon page or the Probability of Miracles site. Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“What Happened to Goodbye” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

My love of Sarah Dessen knows no bounds (check out my reviews of "Along for the Ride," "Lock and Key," "Just Listen," and "Keeping the Moon;" raves all!). For my money, Sarah is one of the finest YA authors around, always providing fresh insight into the classic teen coming of age / falling in love story. Sarah's latest novel, "What Happened to Goodbye," while perhaps not her strongest work, is still miles ahead of most teen literature out there. It's a winning, beautifully written novel that is sure to become a favorite of Sarah's legions of fans.

When we meet Mclean Sweet, she and her divorced dad, Gus, are settling into their fourth new home in two years. After her folks' contentious divorce — mom cheated with the head coach of dad's most beloved university basketball team — Mclean chose to travel with restaurant consultant Gus instead of remaining home with mom, a new stepfather, and twin half siblings. Mclean uses each move with Gus to reinvent herself, alternately playing the roles of theatre chick, athlete, and activity joiner. Mclean even uses a new first name in each town to go with each new persona. The result? Everything is temporary for Mclean; she forms no real ties or attachments, and she leaves behind so-called friends without so much as a backward glance. Even worse? By always pretending to be someone else, Mclean has lost the girl she really is.

In Lakeview, Gus's job is to reinvent Luna Blu, a local Italian restaurant managed by the overwhelmed but well meaning Opal. Inadvertently, Mclean keeps her own name and much of her true self at school, the restaurant, and with her charmingly weird next-door neighbor Dave. It's a new experience, just being Mclean, since there's nothing and no one to hide behind. She also befriends the delightfully bossy Deb as well as bickering but kind best pals Riley and Heather. As the kids embark on an outrageously overdone large-scale model project — and as Mclean slowly lets Dave into her closely guarded world — Mclean realizes she is becoming connected to these people and this town. She cares now, more than she ever intended. So what happens when she has to leave again?

I won't give much else away, because the joy of this book is discovering what ultimately happens to Mclean, Dave, Gus, and the troubled Luna Blu restaurant. I can easily discuss the many things I loved about this book, which I will do in no particular order:

* No great surprise here — this is Sarah Dessen, folks! — but Mclean has such great depth and emotional complexity. She's essentially a parent to her father, soothing his wounded heart, arranging their moves, and getting them properly settled into each new town. Yet, Mclean is also just a high school senior who, beneath this veneer of capability, is absolutely devastated by her mother's infidelity and her parents' divorce. Mclean is so emotionally disconnected from mom that she can only manage unreturned phone calls and carefully calculated, obscenely polite conversations with her. What Mclean doesn't realize is that by separating herself from her mom and her picture perfect former life she has also isolated herself from her peers and father. When Mclean finally allows herself to truly experience all that pain, betrayal, and loneliness, it's incredibly moving.

* Dave. Oh, I could write a lot about Dave. Yes, he's a standard YA love interest. He's sensitive, kind, smart, funny, cute in an offbeat way, quirky … you know the type. He could easily have stepped out of the pages of a John Green novel. But Dave also has believable conflicts with his parents about his boy genius status, a sweet friendship with Riley, and a slew of quiet, touching moments with Mclean. Very well done.

* The three main adults in this novel (Gus, Mclean's mom Kate, and Opal) are not just window dressing, thrown into a scene to stir up conflict only to disappear and leave the real action to the teenagers. These adults are all interesting characters with their own shadings, depth, and shortcomings. I thought Kate, in particular, was well developed. A cheating wife / shrill mother can quickly devolve into painful stereotype, which never happened here. Just as Mclean does, we eventually see beyond Kate's missteps to find a brokenhearted mother longing for her daughter.

* As always, Sarah creates a precise, evocative setting. We walk the streets of Lakeview with Mclean and understand exactly how this small, nondescript town can hold so much promise. There's something beautiful and alive about its alleys after a snowstorm, its starry skies on a clear night, its cozy woods surrounding Riley's house, its failing neighborhood restaurant and overly cheery local coffeehouse. The uber model project — which recreates the town in painstaking, oversized detail — only adds to this sense of community and place. Each building, street, and house clicked into the model is another chance for both us and Mclean to feel more at home in Lakeview. Similarly, when Mclean lovingly describes the shore town she often visited with her mom, we understand how surf, salt, sun, and freedom can transport her to happier times. Later, when Mclean grudgingly visits another beach town with Kate (shout out to Colby, Last Chance, and Heidi's bikini shop!), we readers are swept along on Mclean's same wave of nostalgia and longing.

* Sarah is an expert at portraying emotional moments with simple grace and lyricism. My only real complaint with this novel lies in its rushing past some of these scenes instead of allowing us to savor their impact a bit more. For example, presenting the dramatic culmination of Mclean's journey in a flashback undermines its intensity. I wish we could have stayed in the moment and enjoyed it more! Still, the depictions of the quiet beauty of friendship, parental devotion, and first love are real treasures here. When Mclean sees Dave's heartfelt messages for her in the completed town model … oy! That's good stuff. 🙂

"What Happened to Goodbye" is a perfect summer novel for readers looking for an understated coming of age story with well-developed characters, a charming setting, flawed but involved parents, and, of course, some kicking romance. There's the occasional bit of strong language here, but nothing that would offend an average middle schooler. "What Happened to Goodbye" is out now. I loved it. Go read it! :-p

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Badd” by Tim Tharp

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Tim Tharp was a runner-up for the 2008 National Book Award (Young People's Literature) for "The Spectacular Now," his fantastic novel about a teenage alcoholic in extreme denial. Tharp is back with "Badd," another novel featuring an unreliable teen narrator with a precise, rich voice who faces some very serious issues. While "Badd" lacks the charismatic lead and disarming buoyancy of "The Spectacular Now," it is still a compelling read.

In a hot summer in a small town, high schooler Ceejay McDermott is playing paintball with her crew, crushing on her friend Tillman, and counting the days until her idolized older brother, Bobby, returns from the Iraq War. Ceejay is a tough, no-nonsense girl. From her descriptions, her steely reserve and bad ass approach to life are nothing compared to Bobby. Before he left for Iraq, Bobby was a wild, charming tough guy willing to (literally) fight for the little guy and raise plenty of hell along the way. When Ceejay spots Bobby in a car weeks before his planned return, she and goth girl best friend Brianna track him down to a stoner buddy's apartment. Turns out Bobby was discharged early for drug possession. The vacant man who has returned home — at times enraged, skittish, and lost — is nothing like the brother Ceejay remembers. Bobby is jumpy and troubled, freaks out at the smell of grilled meat, has flashbacks of exploding IEDs and dead friends, and numbs his pain with booze, drugs, and women.

Inexplicably, Bobby soon hooks up with the town's most eccentric resident, Captain Crazy, a man who lives in a trailer surrounded by huge sculptures designed to ward off evil spirits. The Captain lost his own brother back in Vietnam, so despite his childlike exterior and odd behavior, he knows full well the heartbreak of war. Bobby recognizes something of himself in the Captain — or maybe finds in the Captain something worthy to protect — and so, despite encountering scorn and negativity, embarks on a mission with the Captain to build a flying contraption (an "aero-velocipede") named Angelica.

Too weird? Maybe. "Badd" is a strange juxtaposition of gritty reality — the town people's casual drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and infidelity; the wasting death from cancer of Ceejay's grandma; Bobby's post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior; the Captain's mental illness — and fanciful notions of unseen good forces, a misfit revolution, and the redeeming freedom of flying unfettered through the sky. I'm not entirely sure it all meshes together, and I haven't even touched Ceejay's growing romantic relationship with Padgett (Mr. White), a sensitive, compassionate teen who wears all white as a sign of hope.

Perhaps if the character leading us through this story was more open or displayed some more vulnerability, "Badd" would've had a stronger impact on me. But Ceejay is so blankly inexpressive and so unwilling to examine her own pain and fear that it leaves a gaping hole at the center of the story. Yes, Ceejay's voice is strong and clear and I know exactly who this rough, brave girl is. She bullies Brianna, beats up a drunken lout, worships her heroic brother, hides her true feelings, and is convinced in her heart that she will never be pretty, popular, or loved. That's a deeply rendered character. She just never fully grabbed me. So while I liked how Ceejay's own issues color her views of and decisions toward Bobby and his behavior, I simply could not connect with her, even in her softer moments with Padgett or younger sister Lacy.

None of this is to say that "Badd" isn't a good read. It is. Bobby is so traumatized and lost that I couldn't help but get pulled into his suicidal descent and fragile recovery. As bizarre as it is, Bobby's relationship with the Captain, full of sacrifices and kindness, is touching and believable. I wanted them both to survive. I was even glad to see Angelica soar across the sky, as this sweet if somewhat pat conclusion felt well earned. I guess I just hoped (er, expected) a bit more from the great Tim Tharp. In the end, although "Badd" never reaches the transcendent heights of "The Spectacular Now," it's a still an intense, worthwhile book.

PS – "Badd" is definitely intended for a high school audience. We're talking about loads of strong language, ample drug and alcohol use, sexual references, and the kind of painful emotional distress that is probably best suited for teen readers.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Close to Famous” by Joan Bauer

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Thanks as always to the brilliant folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers, who can always be relied upon for truly excellent swag. (And I read today they are joining Net Galley; yay!). I loved my advanced copy of Newbery Honor author Joan Bauer's latest middle grade novel, "Close to Famous." In fact, I read it in one sitting!

When we meet 12 year old Foster McFee, she and her mom are fleeing Memphis and mom's abusive, Elvis impersonator boyfriend. The pair end up in the small town of Culpepper, West Virginia, home to a mammoth prison, a dying downtown, and a host of eccentric residents. Foster and her mom find free lodging in an airstream trailer owned by a kind older couple. In short order, mom has a job at the local hardware store while spunky Foster has negotiated a deal with diner owner Angry Wayne (ha!) to supply a daily order of home baked goods. See, Foster is a Food Network superfan — her idol is a fictitious ex-military food host named Sonny Kroll — and she loves nothing more than practicing her own kitchen cooking show while perfecting her already scrumptious cupcake and muffin recipes. When Foster meets local legend Charleena Hendley, once a famous Hollywood star but now a bossy recluse, her most closely guarded secret is revealed. Seems that underneath her optimism and seemingly boundless spirit, Foster views herself as a stupid, hopeless loser. She has accepted a cruel teacher's label of being "limited." Why? Because, as only her mom knows, Foster cannot read.

If you think a story about illiteracy and cupcakes seems either tedious or manipulative, I can assure you, it's not. Foster sees baking as a way to spread love and kindness, and that warm spirit envelops the whole story. Indeed, this novel has a homey, comforting tone even when dealing with potentially gritty issues like domestic violence, poverty, and grief. There is also plenty of humor, much of it provided by the over the top Charleena and Foster's new best friend, a short, controlling filmmaker named Macon. Yes, many of these supporting characters are outsized personalities, but in the scope of the story, it works. Because Foster is so realistically portrayed — she is very middle school, alternating between shy, engaging, funny, sullen, hopeful, impatient, etc. — she grounds the story, allowing the bigger personalities to shine without becoming irritating.

All the lessons here about believing in yourself and your potential, persevering through hardship (one character is even named Perseverance Wilson), and opening yourself up to life's possibilities are gently delivered. They seem to spring organically from the story itself, so it never feels like the narrative is being interrupted. And for a novel directed primarily at younger readers, there are some truly lovely, nuanced scenes — in particular, I'm thinking of Foster's "re-graduation" ceremony after learning to read and her final pretend cooking show — that deliver quite an emotional punch.

"Close to Famous" is a charming, heartfelt story with a delightful main character, plenty of heart and humor, some easily conveyed life lessons, and enough mouth watering descriptions of food and cooking to make you hungry. I don't see how you can miss with that combination! I'm sure "Close to Famous" will be as beloved by middle schoolers as all of Joan's previous novels. "Close to Famous" is out now. My recommendation: read it. 🙂

PS – I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the cover image, which is meant to depict Foster, is that of a girl with light brown skin. Foster is multiracial, so it was refreshing to see that accurately reflected on the cover. Well done.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Okay for Now” by Gary D. Schmidt

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.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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