Okay for Now/Gary D. Schmidt: Reflections

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

There are just some authors who deserve our readerly love, our supreme fandom, our pass-it-on fire.  Gary D. Schmidt, I discovered yesterday, is one of them.  Don't hate me because it took me this long.  Just let me join the Schmidt Fan Club.  I'll be its secretary, if the job is still open.  I'll wear, well:  What are the Gary D. Schmidt colors?

Because I read Okay for Now yesterday, the 2011 National Book Award nominee.  I read it in a day, sometimes leaving my perch on the couch simply because I could not contain my admiration for this story about a kid growing up in upper New York state under less-than-desirable circumstances.  He calls his home The Dump.  His dad has done some damage.  His oldest brother has been fighting in the Vietnam War.  His other brother is sometimes like his father.  There's a girl, though, and she's lots of fun.  There's a mom with an Elizabeth-Taylor-besting smile. There are the town folk and the teachers who, once they give Doug Sweiteck a chance not to be his brother or old man, are some of the most tender and wonderful people around.

It's 1968, and at first there's not much for Doug to do in this sleepy old town but to go to the library, which is only open Saturdays.  Doug doesn't go there to read.  He goes, after awhile, because of that big book of Audubon bird paintings that lie (only half) protected in a case on the library's second floor.  He's going because a funky old man has started to teach him how to draw these majestic, frozen creatures.  The birds are terrified, or they are huddled by the shore.  They are proud, or they are fearless, or they are wounded.  Doug understands them, intuitively.  And he's got some talent with a pencil.  And maybe the bird and the man and the talent he is discovering will save Doug from The Dump life, or, at least, give him a reason to grow beyond his bruising circumstance.

Schmidt tells his enormously tender story with humor tailor-made for a kid.  He respects his readers, is sure they will understand the nuances, the complications, the simple fact that no one is a label, no one is stuck.  And, without ever stepping beyond the realm of younger reader book-dom, Schmidt gives us some of the most casually beautiful descriptions I've seen:
She had hair as white as clouds, and about as wispy too, and big.  It was all gathered like one of those huge thunderheads that rises on hot summer days.  The top was in sort of a bun and tied tight with red rubber bands.  And in that top bun—I'm not lying—there were three bright yellow pencils stabbing through.  She wore a bluish kind of gown that shimmered—it looked like something that someone about to go to an opera would wear (not that I've ever been to an opera, or would ever be caught dead at one. Can you imagine Joe Pepitone ever going to an opera?).  With the cloud on top and the shimmering blue beneath, she looked like a rainstorm that could walk around all by itself.  Which wouldn't have been so bad on a day that wanted to be a hundred degrees.
Before I had a chance to write this blog post this morning, I Facebooked my applause for this book.  The Schmidt fans flocked.  Yes, yes, they said.  Yes, I say, too.  This is a book (and there are plenty of Schmidt books) that you want the kids you love to read.


bermudaonion said...

You need to read Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. I still think of that book often - it made me laugh and cry.

Serena said...

You have me every time when "Vietnam War" is mentioned.

Lilian Nattel said...

I just finished this book--loved it, Beth.

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