Thursday, July 21, 2011

What We're Reading

Okay for Now

by Gary D. Schmidt

I’ve admired Gary Schmidt’s work for many years now, and his books have been much appreciated by the American Library Association as well. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy was both a Newbery Honor Book and a Printz Honor Book, and The Wednesday Wars was also a Newbery Honor Book. His most recent novel, Okay for Now, is, in my opinion, the best book he has written, and deserves to win the next Newbery Award.

While Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy had an earlier historical setting, several of Schmidt’s books have had a 1960s or early 1970s setting (historical fiction written for the youth of today), which also happens to be part of the personal history of librarians of a certain age--those who, as it happens, often find themselves on awards committees at this stage of their careers. Gary Schmidt is writing about youth at a time when I was the age of his main character, and the appeal of that to me has caused me to think a lot about what exactly it means to write, as the award says, the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Newbery award-winners are only occasionally books popular with youth of today (ostensibly their target audience), and yet they are usually of high literary merit. It makes me wonder if it is possible for an adult writer to successfully write his or her best work in a book of realistic fiction set in the world of contemporary youth, those who have reached an age that we think of as being part of a distinctive “generation.” Perhaps the best realistic fiction that is written for upper grade youth is written not by writers who are writing for youth today, imagining and portraying the world of contemporary youth, but rather by adults who are in fact writing about their own youth, and in some fundamental sense writing for the young person they themselves were and remember.

I think it is possible to write for contemporary elementary-age school children in a way that is effective and makes a connection. Certainly Andrew Clements's work is a good example of this. And adult writers for older children can write books of great appeal if they stick to fantasy and adventure, if they avoid the so called “realistic” fiction genre. But realistic fiction written for young adults often suffers if an adult writer tries to imagine and accurately portray the world of contemporary youth. The whole point of a particular youth culture is to be unknowable to its elders. It creates a nuance of style and an argot that is an insular and proprietary means of communication to youth growing up in a particular historical and cultural time, those communicating about their unique and shared experience. If an adult writer doesn’t master that language technically and imaginatively, and in a way that sounds no false notes (something it seems to me to be hard to do), what they write is going to seem not only inauthentic but perhaps pandering and co-optive to a young reader.

Schmidt seems to have made a deliberate choice to speak to young people of today through the experience of his own youth. His intimate familiarity with that experience allows him to treat his themes with integrity and power, with a depth of feeling that makes what he has to say sound authentic. It is an approach that makes for great literature. The hope in this is that the literature produced somehow has the power to transcend particular historical times and can connect with young people of today because the most important truths about the experience of youth remain perennial, however much the ephemera of popular culture may change.

A person’s youth is shaped of individual and familial experiences, the developmental experiences that seem endemic to youth, and what is a shared cultural outlook that comes from experiencing a particular historical period of time, a world view or as the German’s call it, Weltanschauung. These things come together at the time of our youth and give us a view of life that becomes set and stays with us, often for the rest of our lives. It is the lens through which we frame and interpret our future experience and it informs what sense we have of possibility and hope. For many in the generation of young people who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, the period ended in a feeling of disillusionment and despair. They became cynical, and gave up on many of the ideals and dreams they had for what their lives might be like and the kind of country they would live in. America was engaged in a bitterly divisive war in Vietnam, and there was racial unrest and violence throughout the period. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were murdered. At the beginning of the 1960s the world had almost ended in a nuclear holocaust. In the early 1970s the period ended with students being killed by the National Guard at Kent State, and a president being forced to resign from office. The country and individual communities seemed to be breaking apart along so many different fault lines. There developed a “generation gap" between youth and their parents, and a deep distrust of those in positions of authority.

In Okay for Now, Doug Swieteck finds himself pulled away from his friends on Long Island to be stranded in a small town in upstate New York where his ne’er-do-well father has found a new job, with the help of a dangerous friend and drinking buddy. Doug’s father is cynical and self pitying. The world is out to get him. He is physically abusive to his sons. Doug is the youngest son. His older brother has a reputation as a juvenile delinquent, and his eldest brother is away serving in the army in Vietnam. Doug lives in the belief that things are generally rotten, and if they seem to be better for awhile, it is only because fate is setting you up for a fall. His toughness and cynicism mask a heartbreaking vulnerability as he goes about trying to find a place for himself in the small town of Marysville.

What Doug discovers, and I think this is often characteristic of Schmidt’s novels, is that there are in fact adults who care about young people and their lives, who understand what they are going through both personally and developmentally, and who try to step in when a kid is alone or troubled or his family has failed him. Doug meets many adults who come to care about him, trust him, and want him to be a part of their lives. He finds that he is welcomed as part of a community in the end, and that for every adult who had been quick to misjudge him there have been others who looked deeper and believed in him. He also discovers the power of art to overcome his isolation and sense of despair. The local library owns a rare copy of Audubon’s great illustrated book Birds of America, and one of the librarians begins to instruct Doug in how to draw by copying portraits of birds from the great book. The town council has been selling off plates from the book to pay civic debts, and it is one of the delightful plot devices in this book that it becomes Doug’s mission to get these prints back for the library, to make the book whole again as he tries to make his own life whole. By the time his oldest brother returns from Vietnam horribly maimed and feeling hopeless, Doug has developed the personal strength to help make his life better, he has developed a resiliency through art and through attachments in the community that make it possible not only for him to overcome his own sense of unhappiness and despair but to help him change the outlook of others around him.

The distinguished achievement of this book is Schmidt’s creation of the character of Doug Swieteck, something accomplished in large part by his simply remarkable and memorable narrative voice. His comments are funny and spot on, his silences and avoidances moving, and the reader cannot help but feel a love for this boy and hope that things work out for him. He speaks in a vernacular that reminds me of Huck Finn, especially in the beautiful descriptive passages that exhibit the power of plain and simple ”American” prose as Doug experiences things, often to his surprise, with a sense of freshness and innocence, experiences that seem to demand that he lay them down and consider them side by side with his moments of darkness. This story may appeal to young readers of today, I don’t know. But it is certain that there are resonances here for readers of the '60s generation that they will find relevant and meaningful. Schmidt has written a book that confronts the worldview of that generation. Is it a fantasy of how we wanted the world to be at that time, an account of the things we found missing? Or is it rather a call for us to recollect some good things that were a part of our lives then and that maybe we missed seeing in all that turmoil? The individual reader will have to decide. But for Doug, the world he discovered was not all one of darkness. Good things were not only deceptively good, but genuinely so. He discovered that he could lead a life where things were sometimes good and sometimes had challenges, where he was allowed a place for some hope and faith about his future, and that things were okay for now. It is the suspended judgment and conditional place that youth of any time so desperately seek. Youth isn’t easy; this place might be the most a young person can get, but as this wonderful story makes clear, it’s the least they need.

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