Midwesterner Gary D. Schmidt won Newbery Honor awards for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boys and The Wednesday Wars, two coming-of-age novels about unlikely friends finding a bond. Okay For Now, his latest novel, explores another seemingly improbable alliance, this one between new outsider in town Doug Swieteck and Lil Spicer, the savvy spitfire daughter of his deli owner boss. With her challenging assistance, Doug discovers new sides of himself. Along the way, he also readjusts his relationship with his abusive father, his school peers, and his older brother, a newly returned war victim of Vietnam.
Description taken from Goodreads.
Throughout my 4+ year blogging career and lifelong history as a reader, only one book has come back to me time and time again and demanded to be read, which is Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. For a long time, I thought it was because I’ve always loved the cover, but what sticks with me about it is what I used to think of and could only define as a sleepy kind of sadness to the narrative.
Now, I regard it as one of the hallmarks of a middle-grade lit era that’s no longer with us.
Just like there’s something distinctively different about American pop music from six, seven years ago, there’s something about middle-grade lit that’s distinctively different from five, six years ago. Many of the books I remember most clearly, from Kate DiCamillo’s iconic Because of Winn-Dixie to Linda Sue Park’s The Mulberry Project, could be as obscure and wacky as the books you’ll commonly find in this genre today, but they weren’t that way just for the sake of being so. In some ways, they weren’t meant as entertainment. They just felt like they telling stories, not trying so hard to be anything. It’s that calm and ease that I miss, the “sleepy sadness” that I sought in coming back to Okay for Now. To me, this novel in particular doesn’t feel like something I can criticize or really praise, which is why this’ll be more of a general discussion (or a love letter to the genre) than a review of the book.
One point that I did want to bring up is that this is one of the first times I’ve made it all the way through Okay for Now. I’ve picked it up repeatedly only to read the first ~100 pages and flake out on it. The plot wasn’t interesting enough, the book wasn’t moving quickly enough, it just wasn’t there for me. In fact, this was the kind of book I made a point of disliking on Tweens Read Too, the middle-grade book blog I ran for about three years.
When I first started TRT, the reason why was that I wanted to review and recommend books to middle-schoolers that they would actually like. I found many books that were children’s award winners or renowned by famous reviewers to be dull and pointless and felt that many of these so-called award-winners were more for adults than for children. At the time, I couldn’t understand the logic of that. There was no universe where it made sense to me. I understand it better now having read Okay for Now, six years after it was first released and long after I stopped being a middle-grader.
Some award-winners are truly phenomenal for all ages, like E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler, Katherine Peterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. Others, that will go unnamed for me because I believe the opinion differs for everyone as to what is actually meaningful to a middle-grader, are for adults, and the reason why is because people need to see the world through a lens that isn’t their own. That’s why the diversity movement is pushed as far as it is. That’s why I believe it’s important to read at least the few books that are extraordinary in each target age audience because the innocence with which a child witnesses an event and the knowledge with which an adult witnesses an event are very different. And when you see the world through the lens of a child who has the experiences and knowledge of an adult, like with Doug in Okay for Now, at best, it’s thought-provoking, poignant, and life-changing, even in some small way.
Through Doug’s eyes, we witness cruelty, and more importantly, kindness, and the radical changes they can have on someone’s life, and in the adults around Doug. In the end, his life isn’t perfect. He’s still in the bad family situation that we find him in, but that’s not what’s stressed or important in the novel. In fact, he faces trauma as a result of what he’s been through, but the book focuses primarily on the love he’s received from others, the happiness he manages to find in his situation, and the healing that comes with moving forward. I think one of the fundamental flaws in much of MG today comes in that everything has to be politically correct and “right” and happy in the end. Adult literature isn’t like this, and the old MG wasn’t either. There’s a refusal nowadays in this genre to write any kind of tragedy, but in writing Okay for Now, Schmidt told a story where the setting isn’t perfect, the characters aren’t perfect, and neither are going to change anytime soon if ever, but it’s okay for now.
Books that are not written for children but are about children continue to win awards and meet acclaim because there’s (usually, hopefully) much more depth there than children can see. I hate to say that because almost nothing ruins a MG (or YA, for that matter) faster for me than treating children like they can’t be intelligent or knowledgeable about the world or taught about it, but I know that there are books that I didn’t understand when I was a kid and I disliked them for it, but I understand them now and appreciate them, even if I don’t love them.
While I understand that concept, I still think that there’s a need for Tweens Read Too because people tend to rest on the assumption that renowned children’s books are renowned because of their value to children. With that in mind, they recommend books that children may hate, not considering that a single book could either make or break that growing person’s reading career for the rest of his or her life.
On a less dramatic note, let’s keep in mind that we can’t control a reader’s reaction, we can only recommend to the best of our ability, so let’s all recommend responsibly! :D
I’ll close on this note: I don’t hate middle-grade lit today. Phenomenal, extraordinary books continue to come out of this genre, which is why I continue to read it, even though it’s no longer the genre I primarily read. My intention in writing this post is to celebrate Okay for Now, the triumph that it is and that MG is, and to clarify for others what I didn’t understand about this genre (and about literature) for a long time.
Although I don’t agree with all of it, karen’s review on Goodreads comes the closest to how I feel about Okay for Now and why I love it on an objective/literary level.