Somewhere online, I recently read something about Gary Schmidt's new book, Okay for Now. Whatever I read sufficiently interested me to put in a library request for it (the book was still in processing). It showed up at the public library late last week, and I finally read it on Monday.
I really, really wish I could remember where I got the idea to check out this novel, because it was wonderful. Schmidt goes a little hog-wild with the traumas/crises by the end, but on the whole, it's a really great book. He hits the most appalling lows and the most soaring highs with such deft skill that you're almost not aware of being led to and through them, if that makes any sense. Doug, the narrator, has a fantastic voice, one that in some ways reminds me of Christopher Paul Curtis's narrators in Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, but is also entirely its own.
Schmidt has created some excellent caring and engaged teachers in this book, representations I'm always happy to see, because they resonate with my own personal experiences and my own priorities. He also has some grim teachers, including a principal who insists on referring to himself in the third person, which ought to be hilarious but somehow manages to be menacing.
At the heart of the book is another book: John James Audobon's Birds of America, with a handful of key plates reproduced (in black ink, of course, alas) throughout the novel.
Like My Most Excellent Year, believability isn't the most important thing here, though Schmidt does a fantastic job of creating a plausible, if unlikely, "lived reality" for his characters. I am reminded of the wisdom of Coco Chanel echoed by fashion/pop culture bloggers Tom and Lorenzo: before you go out the door, take one piece (of jewelry, etc) off, to keep from overdoing it.
This is excellent wisdom for writers as well - before sending your book out the door, take one piece off. Because I don't want to spoil Okay for Now, I'll use MMEY - instead of having the orphan who is deaf who needs to see Mary Poppins, who communicates with Julie Andrews - just leave it at the deaf orphan.
Schmidt could have culled one or two of the extra bits out of his novel and still had a glorious work; as it is, those pieces feel like the extra square of cake that makes your stomach ache but looked sooooo good on the platter.
Still, Okay for Now communicates emotion, it communicates experience, so wonderfully that the implausibles and excesses can be easily looked over. It's got the sweetness and light, and the darkness and shadows, of real life in it. As I read, I thought "This book is Newbery material for sure." And if it isn't nominated, and at least given an Honor Award, then I'll give it the KerBery award (boy, there's a mangled mess of punning parentheses lurking behind my name - kerry - and the Newbery name - but I can't quite extract it). Maybe just the KBery Award.
Regardless, Okay for Now was a tremendously good, affecting book that I plan to acquire as soon as it goes into paperback (in another year or so).
Most highly recommended.