New kid in town
Author Gary Schmidt has won many fans with his luminous, heartfelt novels, including two Newbery honor titles, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars. His moving new book, Okay for Now, is a companion to the latter novel. It follows Holling Hoodhood’s friend, Doug Swieteck, who moves to the small town of Marysville, New York, which he at first calls “The Dump,” in the summer of 1968.
Like Holling, Doug faces challenges at home. His father, who keeps up a litany of complaints about his new job at the Ballard Paper Mill, is stern and abusive at home. Doug and his middle brother, Christopher, have learned to watch out for the moments where their dad’s hands might “flash out.” His older brother, Lucas, is fighting in Vietnam.
But in his first days in the new town Doug begins to find some unlikely friends, including a girl named Lil Spicer, who befriends Doug and gets him a job doing Saturday deliveries for her father’s deli (five dollars a Saturday, plus tips). There are also Mr. Powell and Mrs. Merriam at the town library, who prove to be unlikely allies in Doug’s journey from a lonely, embittered outsider to a kid who is fully part of his community.
Doug’s repeat visits to the library are rather a surprise to his brother—and to Doug himself. Doug is not a reader—far from it. The library offers a different kind of magic. When Doug wanders up the cool marble staircase to the second floor, he discovers a square table with a glass case on it. And in that glass case is the most terrifying and beautiful thing he has ever seen: an Arctic tern illustrated by John James Audubon. So terrifying and beautiful that Doug just has to try his hand at drawing it, under the patient guidance of the mild and friendly Mr. Powell.
Before long, Doug finds himself solving problems: how to draw feathers of a tern so they look as if they are “plunging against the air like all get-out” and how to draw the “stupid foot of the stupid puffin . . . who was trying not to drown.”
As the summer ends and Doug begins to endure the challenges of being the new eighth grader at Washington Irving Junior High School, his newfound abilities to solve problems as an artist begin, very slowly, to spill over into the problems in his life. In the process he is able to convert enemies into allies, to find a way to help his brother, Lucas, pick up the pieces of a new life, and to make something precious, yet broken, almost whole again.
Like all Gary Schmidt’s novels, this is a rich and multi-layered story that weaves together themes of redemption, creativity and possibility. Okay for Now reminds us that the best children’s literature is not just for young readers, but for all of us.