Around Newbery Award time I heard a lot of buzz about the middle grade/young adult novel Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt had already received two Newbery honors for his books Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars. So people who really liked Schmidt’s most recent book thought it was time for him to win a Newbery.
Come January and the Newbery announcements, Okay for Now won . . . nothing, zip, not even a mention. Nor was Okay for Now among the finalists for the Cybils, even though it was nominated in the YA fiction category. If I had read the book before the award season started and ended, I would have been pulling for Mr. Schmidt with all my might. Okay for Now is an award-worthy book, and a book worth reading.
So, how to describe this novel? It’s got: drawing lessons, juvenile delinquency, child abuse, Jane Eyre, junior high school angst, libraries, literacy training, John James Audubon, returning Vietnam soldiers, baseball stats, Apollo rockets, ice cream and Coca Cola, horseshoes, Percy Bysshe Shelley-hatred, a cranky playwright, redemption, hope and change. Oh, and my favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, makes a non-speaking cameo appearance. What more could you ask?
The narrator and protagonist, Doug Swieteck, has a voice that is both memorable and endearing. He’s something of a bully as the novel begins, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like him or the book. But then, sign of a really good author, Gary Schmidt managed to enlist my sympathies by slowly revealing the secrets and influences that have come together to make Doug the boy he is: a survivor. I was drawn into the story and into sympathy with the main character almost imperceptibly. And that’s only part of what makes Okay for Now a great book.
Here’s an article about Gary Schmidt.
Review of Okay for Now by Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 Production. (Ms. Bird does longer, more thorough reviews than I do, and I like and agree with what she said about this novel.)
The book that actually won the Newbery, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, was, I suspect, trying to be the same kind of book as Okay for Now: historical fiction about a boy growing up in a rather quirky small town, lots of boy-appeal. However, whereas Okay for Now has many humorous moments and characters, it’s essentially a serious book about a boy surviving a traumatic childhood. Dead End is essentially a comedic novel about a boy living in a town full of crazy people. The boy who narrates and lives the story is named Jack Gantos, so I assume the novel is somewhat autobiographical.
The problem with Dead End, for me, was that I didn’t laugh. I didn’t even smile much. I mostly got that quizzical look on my face that you get when you wonder what in the world these people are thinking or doing???? Poison the rats in your basement with doctored chocolates? Really? Gather mushrooms in the wild to make meals for the elderly? Really? Sneak into an old lady’s house dressed as the Grim Reaper to see if she’s still alive and hope you don’t scare her to death? Really? Mow down your mom’s cornfield when you know she’s going to be really mad, just because your dad will be mad if you don’t? Really? And those are only a few of the minor plot points I had trouble suspending disbelief for.
Dead End in Norvelt gets an E for effort, but we each have our own sense of humor. Mine just wasn’t susceptible to Mr. Gantos’s brand of comedy.
Then, there were the plot holes. (These questions may include spoilers.) Five or six (I lost count) murders and no one even figured out till the very end that the deaths were not natural? Jack’s dad learns to fly an airplane in two or three easy lessons? Why did Jack’s mom ground him in the first place when he was only doing what his dad told him to do? Because she’s crazy? If anything in this book didn’t make sense, it was chalked up to the idea that “they’re all nuts.”
Checking in again at Fuse#8, Ms. Bird says Dead End in Norvelt is “weird” and “may also be one of the finest he’s (Gantos) produced in years.” She obviously liked it better than I did. I’m also not as observant as Ms. Bird because I ddn’t notice until she pointed it out that the two books have very similar cover pictures.
Dead End in Norvelt gets a few points for a more evocative and memorable title, but Gary Schmidt was cheated out of a Newbery-award as far as I’m concerned.