Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now is a very loose sequel to his Newbery Honor-winning novel The Wednesday Wars. It's really more of a spin-off, taking Doug Swieteck, one of the characters from the first book, to a new town and a new set of experiences. I think that Okay for Now is better than The Wednesday Wars. I think that it's fabulous. I think that it's one of the best books that I've read in ages. I can't recommend it highly enough. [And for the record, it's not necessary to have read The Wednesday Wars to read and enjoy Okay for Now.]
Okay for Now is the story of a year in the life of Doug Swieteck, from summer of 1968 to summer of 1969. Doug is the youngest son of a bitter, brutal, complaining man. Doug's oldest brother, Lucas, is in Vietnam. His middle brother, Christopher, is a budding thug. His mother still has a great smile, but she cries a lot, too.
Doug is less than thrilled when his family moves to "stupid Marysville" in upstate New York, to a house that he calls "The Dump". He's not surprised when his 8th grade teachers and the town's head librarian greet him with suspicion. He expects bad things to happen to him, and he's often right. But gradually, oh so gradually, Doug finds his place in Marysville, and in his own family.
Okay for Now is a coming of age story and a window into a pivotal time in US history. But more than that, Okay for Now is a flawless character study. Doug initially repels the reader (as he does the residents of Marysville). He is defensive and bitter. But once you get to know him a bit, you see his other side. Schmidt manages to pull off a consistent viewpoint (Doug never changes from who he is) while making the reader appreciate Doug a little bit more on every page. He is an unforgettable character. Here are a couple of examples, to give you a feel for Doug's voice:
"Okay, So I was going to the library every Saturday. So what? So what? It's not like I was reading books or anything." (Page 71)
"I couldn't keep myself from smiling. I couldn't. Maybe this happens to you every day, but I think it was the first time I could hardly wait to show something that I'd done to someone who would care besides my mother. You know how that feels?" (Page 77)
"In English, Miss Cowper was throwing us into the Introduction to Poetry Unit like it was as all-fired important as the moon shot. You know, there are good reasons to learn how to read. Poetry isn't one of them. I mean, so what if two roads go two ways in a wood? So what? Who cares if it made all that big a difference? What difference? And why should I have to guess what the difference is? Isn't that what he's supposed to say?" (Page 235)
I love this kid! He also has a way of throwing in "I'm not lying" at regular intervals, as he explains things. That, combined with his "You know how that feels?" really gives the story the feel of being told to the reader by a friend. I'm not lying.
The other characters in the novel are also fully realized. There is not a one-dimensional soul in the bunch. Many of the characters reveal surprises, but these are always consistent, or based on information that was initially hidden from the reader. Even a couple of major reversals make sense, because they happen gradually, and for a reason. Schmidt takes his time with his character development, and it works.
There is a fair bit of history packed in to Okay for Now, from major events like the Vietnam War and the mission to land on the Moon to details like the National Physical Fitness standards and the various stats of the Yankees. Schmidt is unable to resist the temptation to tease the reader a bit about the future (the ridiculous notion of tiny computers that people can carry around, the absurdity of an actor ever becoming President). But I'm willing to give him a pass for that, in light of the overall brilliance of the book.
Okay for Now is not an easy read. It takes a little while to get into the story. And then there are quite a few places where the narrator (Doug) refuses to reveal something right away. The reader has to either wait for the reveal or figure things out from what is already known about the characters. I think this is a plus. In figuring things out, in wondering what happened, the reader becomes increasingly invested in the story, and in Doug. Okay for Now is a book to challenge reluctant readers (especially but not exclusively boys). It would also make a fantastic real-aloud, at home or in the classroom, with springboards for discussion everywhere.
Okay for Now is top-notch. I expect to hear more about it come Newbery Award time. It has my highest recommendation for middle schooler readers and up.
Publisher: Clarion (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).