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.
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.