A Story of Baseball, Birds, and Bullies
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt resembles the story of so many of our kids. On the surface, these “smart alecks” appear to not care about school or their grades. On the surface, these “slackers” appear to not be very smart because they refuse to play the game. That’s why it is dangerous, especially as an educator, to look at kids (or anyone for that matter) from a surface perspective—to confine them to a certain stereotype and not give them the chance to surprise you.
I thought I had Doug Swieteck all figured out as the typical jaded protagonist. He comes from an extremely dysfunctional family that moves to upstate New York in the summer of 1968. Doug’s oldest brother is returning from Vietnam; his father is a “chump;” he calls his new home “the Dump.” Doug has every reason to be mad at the world. But when he stumbles into the local public library and discovers the plates of Birds of America by John James Audobon, the power of art begins to chip away Doug’s protective armor to reveal a sensitive, deeply perceptive, and talented young man.
This shift happens with several characters in the book. I admit that I first looked at each of them from a surface perspective, thinking I had them all figured out, and then Schmidt surprised me with a change—an authentic, believable change that tied to the universal theme of this powerful book: there are reasons behind our actions and reactions, and when we understand these motives, then we better understand the person, and we can help him/her heal and become whole again. Even though their horrible actions qualify these characters as “villains,” (Doug’s father and gym teacher each made me want to scream several times in the book), Schmidt slowly exposes the reasons behind their actions, and Doug begins to see them from a different perspective (and so did I).
Doug’s voice reminds me of so many that I have heard over the years as a high school English teacher. I could not help but laugh out loud when I read the following paragraph:
“You know, there are good reasons to learn how to read. Poetry isn’t one of them.
I mean, so what if two roads go two ways in a wood? So what? Who cares if it
made all that big of a difference? What difference? And why should I have to
guess what the difference is? Isn’t that what he’s supposed to say?
Why can’t poets just say what they want to say and then shut up?” (Schmidt 235)
For me, the sign of a great book is that the characters stay in my head after I close the pages and nag at me to return to their story. Doug and his family kept calling me back to the book. As an adult reader, I loved Okay for Now. But I am not sure this will appeal to average middle-grade readers because of the context that needs to be established and explained in order to truly understand the power of this book. The late 1960s setting and references to the Vietnam War, New York baseball, and Audobon’s work might not interest some kids due to a lack of background knowledge. But in the hands of a skilled teacher who could establish the context, this could be a powerful read-aloud for middle grades.
Overall, kids can relate to Doug’s struggle and will root for him to overcome it. With the help of caring adults and strong friendships, Doug realizes that he will be okay for now. It is an important message to share with our kids, especially those, like Doug, who try to fool us into thinking that they do not care.
This MG Moment brought to you by the letter A and the number awesome. You know, if Awesome were a number. Amianne Bailey is in her third year as the librarian at Shaw Elementary in Mesquite, Texas. Before she found her "dream job" in the library, she worked in the trenches as a high school English teacher for eleven years. She loves to read (obviously), spend time with her family, and watch sports. You can visit her blog at http://mywesternsky.blogspot.com/.