Round 1, Match 4: The Landry News vs. Okay for Now


Judged by Kris • Find her on Goodreads

I think Beth rigged this thing.

(I think Beth rigged this thing because both of my books deal with new-in-town kids and their attempts to define their place in their new homes. Coincidence? I THINK NOT. IT’S RIGGED. CANCEL YOUR BETS.)

First: This recap will contain spoilers. I wish I could talk around them, but the truth is that I can’t honestly discuss my selection without delving into the heart of each book. I will mark the paragraphs that are spoiler-heavy, and cross my fingers that you’ll check out both books regardless.

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt is told from the point of view of thug-in-training Doug Swieteck, a teenaged boy who has the world out to get him. Upon arrival in his new town, he stumbles into the library and discovers a book containing James Audubon’s paintings of birds – and sees in the Arctic Tern his own terrified eye.

It’s a heavy, messy book: Doug struggles with just about everything a teenage boy can struggle with. His father is an abusive alcoholic. His brother is accused of breaking into local stores, which causes the rest of the town to ostracize Doug. He has problems with reading, and so lashes out at school and finds himself in the principal’s office regularly. He likes a girl that may or may not think he’s a thug. His mother is miserable and he just wants to make her happy. His older brother is returning from Vietnam, horribly injured and changed.

The Landry News by Andrew Clements is an entirely different sort of book. It’s about Cara Landry, a new girl who starts a school newspaper and challenges her teacher, Mr. Larson, to remember what gets him excited about teaching.

It’s a clean, precise book: Cara’s parents are divorced, but she’s come to terms with it already. Her first editorial on Mr. Larson is cruel, but it’s true so he forgives her. Her interest in journalism inspires the entire class to join together and create a school newspaper. The school principal dislikes Mr. Larson but he and the kids have optimism on their side!

Therein lies the crux of the matter: one book was almost melodramatic in its layers; the other was so straightforward it felt sterile. I disliked Schmidt’s too-busy narrative (and how that interacted with its ending – but more on that later) because it felt too sporadic and unwoven. But then I read The Landry News and missed some of the messiness of childhood, how lives are snarls of interests and pains and hopes and stuff.

And then there were the endings [Here are the spoiler-heavy paragraphs, so beware! Look away! Shield your unwilling eyes!]:

Okay for Now ends on a few emotionally-demanding twists: first, Doug’s father (the actual perpetrator of the break-ins) anonymously confesses to the police and repents and promises to be a better father to Doug/the family. Meanwhile, Lil (the girl Doug is interested in) is diagnosed with cancer and with Doug’s help, comes to terms with her impending death. (At least, that’s how I read it. Perhaps she doesn’t die. Perhaps they go to the moon. Or become birds.)

Both of those plot elements suck.

First, the idea that a chronic alcoholic will change his spots in the manner portrayed is ludicrous. It’s implied that he “sees the light” over the false accusation of his son – but how realistic is it to believe that such a transformation of a man who beats his sons and wife and steals and lies will stick? I don’t believe it for an instant, which ended the book on a really sour, unbelievable note.

Second, that entire point is presented as a tidy wrap-up to the abuse thread, which is absolutely disgusting. It posits that if a victim keeps their head down and behaves, eventually their abuser will “come to Jesus” and stop the abuse. Which – how damaging is that for a child to read? Especially one who might be suffering abuse? To sympathize with a character’s plight – but then to have that plight neatly waved way, deus ex machina-style? I think it’s cheap and Schmidt owes us better.

Third, the whole thing with Lil was such a left-turn that I’m still stranded in a field in Iowa scratching my head. I read somewhere that the only way to pull off a plot twist properly is to foreshadow it properly, and I think I missed all the signs for this particular “twist”.

Meanwhile, there’s the oh-so-happy resolution to The Landry News. After Dr. Barnes (the nasty principal) finds a “scandalous” story in the student-written newspaper, he starts a disciplinary hearing against Mr. Larson (the old/lazy teacher). All the kids come together, rise above, learn an important lesson about the freedom of speech/truth/mercy/justice, and live happily ever after.

It’s cute, if not very effective. I didn’t really care about any of the characters, and from the tone I knew Mr. Larson’s job was never at stake. (There was something too earnest, too preachy about the text.) The “scandalous” story (a short piece on handling a parent’s divorce) is not even remotely in the realm of scandalous – it’s almost laughable to consider it in the context of Okay For Now. It’s just so damned neat.

So I was at an impasse.

[End Spoilers]

And then Beth emailed me about how I needed to get off my butt and write her a review. In doing so, we started a discussion about the books she had rigged for me – I mean “randomly selected” for me, which led to a conversation about genre.

Okay For Now is set very firmly in 1968/1969, during the Vietnam war and the height of the space race. It talks baseball and bicycles and suburban life. It’s very much a book of a certain era; it feels like it was written during that confessional time when books about the “rough stuff” were coming into vogue.

But here’s the thing: it was published in 2011.

And I wouldn’t have known that it was published in this millennium if I hadn’t gone looking. But I think that’s the point: I think Okay For Now was written very intentionally to feel as if it could have been published not long after the end of the Vietnam war – when “YA” and “MG” weren’t really classifiable genres.

The creation of so many genre distinctions – YA, MG, New Adult, etc. – has made it easy to rely upon genre to sell books. It has also, to my way of thinking, taken the teeth out of story-telling. Instead of focusing on truth-y, rough, messy human stuff, genre-conventional books focus on Important Issues and neglect to tell a relatable human story.

Which is what I think The Landry News did. It had an Important Point to tell about the freedom of speech, so it told that story. And it told it competently. And it told it neatly. But it didn’t delve into any of the human stuff. The interesting bits – Mr. Larson’s fading interest in his job, Cara’s handling of her parents’ divorce, the hoity-toity Dr. Barnes – are all paragraph-long asides in an essay about the Important Issue. There’s no humanity in this book: merely puppets, preaching and creaking on command.

Ultimately, I had to choose between a very flawed, messy book about the truths of puberty and strife and life, and a very sterile, brief book about the freedom of speech. I thought it would be more difficult to decide, but ultimately a flaw is better than a shell so my pick to advance to the next round is…

Okay For Now.

Congratulations to Okay for Now, which moves on to Round 2!


27 thoughts on “Round 1, Match 4: The Landry News vs. Okay for Now

  1. AHHH. This write up is SO GREAT.

    Yeah, my big sticking point about Okay For Now (WHICH I LOVED) is the resolution of the abuse story. I CAN buy that the dad turned in his friend in to save his son. Do I buy that he will now be a great non-abusive father? Not really. (As for Lil, I literally forgot about that whole story because it WAS so out of left field.)

    I did find humanity in The Landry News, but, yeah, it was a cute story I really enjoyed, while Okay For Now made me feeeeeeeeeel.

    1. I could believe the dad would turn in his “friend”, I guess (although I still remain questionable on the true motives of such an act), but there’s no way that he becomes a different man because of it. He’s selfish and a monster; that doesn’t just “get better”.

      Lil’s whole plot was such a meta-physical twist of nonsense; it really doesn’t sound like it belongs in the same book as the rest of the story.

      There was such a dirth of FEEEEEEEELs in THE LANDRY NEWS that I really felt cold throughout my entire read. Everyone felt 1D to me!

    2. It’s so interesting – I never read the end of Doug’s story as a neat resolution at all. I bought that the dad had a one-time change of heart and turned in his friend, but that’s all I read it as – a one-time thing. I didn’t think it at all likely (not just now, looking back, but while reading) that he would change overnight. I’ll have to reread and see if I can pinpoint what it is in the text that made Kris feel that way!

  2. Ultimately, I had to choose between a very flawed, messy book about the truths of puberty and strife and life, and a very sterile, brief book about the freedom of speech. I thought it would be more difficult to decide, but ultimately a flaw is better than a shell…

    LOVE this.

    I can’t say anything “opinioney” about Okay for Now, but hope it’s okay to say that I believed Doug when he knew that Lil was going to be all right.

    1. That’s so strange because I found the ending to be very…resigned! Very much a soothing, life-is-hard-but-we’ll-overcome type tone?? But I am A-OK with being completely off-base on it!

  3. Yay!

    I’ll go post my GR reviews now, but I just have two things to say about Okay for Now:

    Lil complains of stomach pain at least twice and “had to go home” because of a stomachache once. I knew from that moment that something was wrong. I didn’t guess what was wrong, but it was sufficiently foreshadowed for me.
    The dad, at the end…I think it’s ridiculous for the book to suggest that he really has turned himself around. But there are a lot of other things that really haven’t been established–I don’t believe that Lil’s struggles are ended, I don’t believe it’s really going to be that easy for Lucas. And I’m certain the dad is going to go on being abusive. But I think this is where the title comes in: in that moment, that ending, everything is okay…for now.

    1. See, I didn’t catch those elements AT ALL, which made the diagnosis seem to come out of nowhere. That said, I could have completely rolled with it if the text hadn’t seemed to go in a strange meta-physical / psychological direction because of it? The tone of the novel seems to split and diverge around that plot point, making the ~event seem even more incongruous when compared to the rest of the novel.

      I absolutely agree about the ending of the novel nodding to the sensation of things being “okay, for now” because that does fit with the overall idea, I think, that life gets better until it doesn’t, and then it gets worse until it doesn’t. But the handling of the abuse/father plot point was just…bad. There is not enough critical attention paid to dad’s “all better” moment–it’s presented as a done thing, which is dangerous and unrealistic. If the text had handled his about face with the same nebulous attention paid to the rest of the stuff happening in Doug’s life, I wouldn’t have been half as squicked as I was.

      (I have A LOT OF FEELINGS about how poorly that was handled; apologies for dumping them on you!)

      1. Oh, I totally get having a lot of feelings about it! I think–this is off the top of my head, so I may change my mind–for me, it was so obviously impossible that the dad could have permanently changed that I filed it as “there’s more to this story” as opposed to “this is just totally wrong,” which frankly seems like the more supportable reading (not that I won’t defend mine!). And I like your point about different ways of handling it making it more or less palatable–that’s interesting, because the ending really is a little more concrete than most of the rest of the book.

        The point I had more trouble with, honestly, was Lil’s problem, because I kept going back and forth between whether or not it was telegraphed enough. Because too much would have overburdened the story, but I think I only picked up on it because I’m incredibly suspicious about tiny details that seem unimportant. So even though I know he mentioned it, I’m not sure he did enough to prepare for something that enormous. I thought he was going for appendicitis.

        1. I am convinced that it was this debate right here about the abuse storyline that sunk this book’s Newbery chances. Because it is what tore apart the mock Newberys when we were discussing it in 2011. I read it as a temporary turn around with it being “okay for now”. Doug WANTS his father to be better so it follows that he would wan to believe with all his heart that he would succeed. He believes it’s real-because he has to-and since all we get is his POV it reads as a great turn around. But I can also see how the other interpretation is arrived at. I saw it then, and I still see it. It’s this book’s fatal flaw. And also the reason I prefer The Wednesday Wars.

          I do approve of your choice though, Kris. The Landry News is not my favorite Clements book. It’s definitely the most didactic.

          1. This is really interesting to me because it drags into the discussion authorial intent and how much that should weigh into the final consumption of a book. If Schmidt meant for it to be an “okay for now” scenario, does that absolve the fact that the text casts it in a very different light? And how much will that intent truly matter to the intended audience–kids, presumably, under 18? Will a 14 year old boy with an abusive father really put down this book and understand that Doug is an unreliable narrator and so his eager-beaver acceptance of his father’s turn-around is not indicative of how the world really works?

            It’s that tension that really bothered me about this book–absolutely Doug’s unreliableness is a vital part of the story, but I hesitate to read too past it because what I bring to the text and what Beth brings to the text and what you bring to the text will all make those deeper readings so very different. Which I adore, absolutely, in any other setting, but it makes the objective judging of a book so difficult!

            1. Will a 14 year old boy with an abusive father really put down this book and understand that Doug is an unreliable narrator and so his eager-beaver acceptance of his father’s turn-around is not indicative of how the world really works?

              This is the most interesting question, I think. Because I’d say that kids are smart enough to know that books aren’t real, and while they can read them for many reasons – escape, education, finding themselves – ultimately they turn to the last page and close the book, and that’s not something you can do with life.

              Then again, if even one person is hurt as a result – how can I say it’s worth it? What’s the balance there?

              but it makes the objective judging of a book so difficult!

              NO NEED TO BE OBJECTIVE 😀

              1. Then again, if even one person is hurt as a result – how can I say it’s worth it?

                ANY book could be considered potentially harmful then. Not that I’m not dismissing your concern, but that’s what is hard about books for kids. Balancing a concern for them with their craving for complex stories and characters.

                1. I completely agree! I was raising a hypothetical, but you’re right – following that through seems to inevitably lead to censorship, right?

      2. Kris, the diagnosis came out of nowhere for me, too! That was one of the things I found a bit shaky about the ending, along with the fact that two inexperienced kids get cast in a Broadway show. I didn’t buy that at all. But that’s something my brain just – ignores, because I found Doug’s story so incredibly powerful that my brain steamrollered over all possible objections.

        1. I honestly didn’t let the Broadway show thing bother me too much but only because I almost…expect that sort of nonsense from my YA/MG fiction set in contemporary school settings? There’s always this “better than the average Joe” moment–see Cara Landry’s editor prowess; the View from Saturday’s team’s scholastic merit; the plot of The School Story–that I have to roll my eyes at.

          But then the illness happened and it was just. Too much.

          1. There’s always this “better than the average Joe” moment

            I almost wonder if we’d buy a story about an average Joe. In a way, don’t we expect characters to be extraordinary in some way, if they’re the focus of the story?

            I remember arguing once that characters in fantasy need to be more average, otherwise the craziness quotient is too high and the story becomes to unbelievable, but that characters in contemporary books need to have something extraordinary to recommend them, otherwise their stories might be boring.

            Which might be radical – only most people I know are pretty extraordinary, even if it’s not in “published a book in sixth grade” ways.

            1. See, I don’t necessarily agree with the extraordinary narrators in ordinary contemps thing 100%–I mean, I do see what you’re saying! And I think it can be true!–but then I grew up on Babysitters Club books and Boxcar children and even some of the early Nancy Drew books, which feature (in my eyes) narrators that are ordinary kids.

              And I mean, yes, absolutely there are elements of the absurd in those books, but I don’t really know that there’s ever a moment when any of those characters achieve the “better than the average Joe” moment I originally mentioned because at any time those characters are just average Joes??

              Perhaps I am completely off base w/r/t to what you’re saying because none of those books are really contemporary! Even when I read them! But now when I read a novel featuring a kid who is Just So Much Better Than Everyone Else, I tune right out because I’d rather they were Just Like Everyone Else but Really Trying.

              1. I think it takes a really special book to make the ordinary seem special, though! Like, the Boxcar Children LIVE IN A BOXCAR. Also their grandfather turns out to be super rich. And Nancy Drew is an eighteen-year-old detective with cases springing up around her, and she survives eleven-million attempts on her life… Don’t get me wrong, because I grew up on the same books and I LOVE them all. But I think there are extraordinary circumstances there? Or “elements of the absurd,” like you term them!

                (Then again, I am a person who routinely stops when crazy things happen, like at work, and go “We should write a book. So there are elements of the absurd in everyday life – just not to Nancy Drew extent.)

                I guess what I’m saying is that in most cases, you will have either a special character, or special circumstances – because otherwise, what is your story about? Only rare books make the mundane into a great story. I can only think of two off the top of my head, in fact!

                But now when I read a novel featuring a kid who is Just So Much Better Than Everyone Else, I tune right out because I’d rather they were Just Like Everyone Else but Really Trying.

                Totally, totally agree with this.

          2. I suppose I’ve just contradicted myself in that comment – but in a roundabout way, I guess I’m saying that I don’t find such events nonsense! Either because they’re the reasons for books’ existence, or because I find some truth in them.

    2. I’m probably a terrible person, because the ending left me convinced that Lil will die, and that that will be Doug’s next big challenge. In addition to Lucas adjusting, because getting a job doesn’t magically cure PTSD.

      1. Right, Lucas! I knew there was someone else whose fate was uncertain. (I think Lil will die too, so we can be horrible together.) See, I love the feeling that this story is just going to keep going on, and happy and awful things will happen, and I wish I knew what kind of adult Doug would become.

        1. SAME. I actually really love that we can’t predict what type of adult Doug will become. Who’s a finished product as a twelve-year-old? And I love the idea of more story. I don’t want to write it myself, but I want to know there are a myriad of possibilities, and some are hopeful, and some are heartbreaking, and all of them are real.

      2. I’m fighting really hard to avoid saying anything that might indicate my preferences here, but can’t not engage in the discussion totally!

        In addition to Lucas adjusting, because getting a job doesn’t magically cure PTSD.

        But who said anything about PTSD? I mean, obviously not said it overtly, but I think you’ve assumed that what Lucas is suffering from IS definitely PTSD and I would argue that that’s a very large assumption which might merit further consideration.

        (I might be failing to keep my big mouth sufficiently shut, yeah?)

      3. I felt very similarly about Lil–and I’m not certain that I believed how Doug was “handling” it? It did not seem to fit in with the progression of how Doug handled things?? I don’t think I”m explaining myself very well, but I honestly felt like the entire plot element of Lil’s sickness and the fallout was from an entirely different book and did not fit at all?? IT WAS JUST SO STRANGE BETH.

        I’m really curious about how the rest of Doug’s life unraveled, but at the same time–there was just SO MUCH against the kid that part of me is like give him a rest! Let something go right for once instead of having the entire deck stacked against him. Ugh.

        1. I’m wondering if your last paragraph is the reason Doug’s father’s turning Ernie in worked for me – because finally, finally something went his way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s