Okay for Now
by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2011
368 pages (hardcover)
We don’t review a lot of middle grade or YA novels here at The Discarded Image, but we need to start. Our purpose is to pursue belief-changing ideas, and what is young adulthood if not an exercise in changes? A primary theme of many of these books is the separation of self from the family unit and the beginning of a lifelong exploration of personal identity. Who am I? Where did I come from? How am I different from my family of origin? What are others’ expectations of me? What expectations do I have of myself?
Because of the way he explores these questions, one of my favorite middle grade authors is Gary D. Schmidt. I loved The Wednesday Wars (recipient of the Newbery Honor), narrated by the charming Holling Hoodhood, who gets stuck on Wednesdays with a teacher who forces him to read William Shakespeare. Schmidt’s latest, Okay for Now, is even better, a spinoff that follows one of Holling’s classmates, Doug Swieteck, when his family moves from Long Island to Marysville, New York, in 1968.
Doug is a defensive kid with an abusive father, a sad mother, a brother in Vietnam and another brother learning to be a thug. Doug instantly hates everyone in Marysville, and for awhile it seems like the feeling is mutual. But underneath his tough demeanor is a sensitive boy who loves baseball, drawing and making his mom smile (but don’t mention it because he’ll just deny it). That first surprisingly eventful year in Marysville he gets a weekend job, meets a real writer, discovers the paintings of John James Audubon, steals his first kiss, and builds a new relationship with his brother when he returns wounded from the war.
Schmidt is a master at strong narrative voice and believable character development. Despite Doug’s insistence that everything is “stupid” and “who cares?” and “I’m not lying,” his voice pulls you in and makes you root for him. He’s just likeable, even though he tries not to be. He knows his dad and his school principal and his gym coach are bullies, and he doesn’t respect them (and neither do I!). But he’s discovering that there is more to all of their stories that informs their behavior, a set of experiences and a view of themselves that leads them to react as they do.
So Doug fights for the right to an identity of his own, to be seen as distinct from his dad and his brother and his teachers’ assumptions about his background and skills. The small victories he experiences are just enough to nudge him forward through difficult circumstances and leave you with the feeling that, though he has a long journey ahead of him, he’s going to make it—and maybe his family and the depressed town of Marysville will too.
Okay for Now deserves more distinctions than it has garnered (it was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature but should have won the Newbery). This is middle grade fiction at its best, a narrator and a story you can’t get out of your head, with life lessons about image and identity that are profound but never preachy.