The leading contender so far for my top pick for the next Newbery Award for the best book for 10-14 year olds this year is Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now. This is just a lovely, lovely book that, to me, is all about making a difference in other people's lives. This is not the big, action-oriented "making a difference" of leading the charge against a repressive and brutal regime, or a gang of murderous vampires/werewolves/zombies/aliens/other monstrous creatures, or the dark wizard or whatever else wants to take over the universe, which is so popular among YA literature these days. No, this book deals with the difference we can make in small, quiet ways, with our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, and especially for us teachers, our students.
The protagonist of Okay For Now was one of the characters in Schmidt's previous Newbery Honors-winning The Wednesday Wars, and is written in much the same style as that book, which was also wonderful. But I think Okay For Now is even better written, with even more interesting characters and a more compelling story. It is also darker, as it deals with domestic abuse and returning veterans having to deal with the aftermath of having been in combat (although there is little violence described in the text itself). However, it makes the story even more uplifting, as people find a way to work their way through such challenging circumstances.
The main character, 14 year old Doug Swieteck, begins the book as an unlikely hero. Although new to town, he is quickly judged by many of his teachers and customers of his once-a-week delivery services on the basis of his abusive father and thuggish brother, who is suspected of theft. But a kindly librarian notices his interest in a display in the library of a book of original Audubon plates of birds, and teaches the teenager how to draw each one. His analysis of each separate illustration, which he now views with an artist's eye, gives Doug an insight into the people and situations occurring around him. Eventually, they lead him on a noble but seemingly quixotic quest that has the potential to transform not only his life, but a number of the other people in his town as well.
Schmidt writes Doug in a way that sounds like an actual teenager, and sets things up so things never become preachy or sanctimonious. Rather, it is a series of small episodes where ordinary people can choose to do the right thing or to do the wrong thing, and most of the time, they do the write thing. In some ways, it is sort of like reading a modern teen novel equivalent of Norman Rockwell pictures, which glorified the average man/woman and captured common, everyday American life as something to be celebrated. And, of course, I was sure to be hooked because two of the institutions that contribute the most to this redemptive tale are libraries and schools--not today's quantitative data-driven schools, of course, but our ideal of old fashioned schools where teachers had the ability to know their students well enough to realize what each one needed, and the flexibility to adapt their curriculum to provide such individual attention. As I have written in a previous post, there is one passage that I think beautifully encapsulates what education SHOULD be, even if it seldom seems to be what it is these days.
Plus, the whole Audubon angle is just such an unique and beautiful device. You wouldn't think it would pull today's middle schoolers in, but Schmidt handles it just perfectly.
So I can definitely recommend this for a middle school audience, for an older YA audience, and for adults. I think it is a particularly great book for educators, because it demonstrates the potential we have to crush a student's spirit, or to help a student to grown wings and fly, which is a worthy choice to get to make every day we teach.