In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Yes, but

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad you and I have the same take on Ladybug girl.  One wants it to be better because the illustrations are so engaging and she has a slightly tough feel to her.  And it's not, but it's still okay.  Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy is my favorite too.  Books like that, which have a message but still have a bit of personality, are why the world doesn't need the Berenstain Bears, to get back to an old thread.

I'm going to defer the discussion of death books -- must go ransack my shelves for some good ones first.

I'm in the thick of meetings with sales reps to order books for the summer right now.  And I've just read the first Seriously Good (Although Flawed) book of the year.  I'm putting it on my might-win-an-award list -- although we know how bad my record is on those predictions.  It's
Okay for Now
by Gary Schmidt. It's due out in mid-April.  (Note: spoilers throughout the following paragraphs.)  Schmidt's a lovely writer: this book is full of very special individuals. There are a few old chestnuts among the characters, but the narrator, Doug Swieteck, is wonderfully done.  The book follows him through his eighth grade year: it's 1968 and his family moves to a small town in upstate New York.  His older brother is an aspiring hood who steals his stuff and beats him up.  His father is abusive to the entire family and the whole town is suspicious of the brothers.  Two adults help Doug discover some of the joys of the world: a science teacher who figures out that he can't really read, and a librarian who introduces him to the prints of John James Audubon.

Underneath the glass was this book.  A huge book.  A huge, huge book.  Its pages were longer than a good-size baseball bat.  I'm not lying.  And on the whole page, there was only one picture.  Of a bird.
     I couldn't take my eyes off it.
     He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea.  His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he were trying to turn but couldn't.  His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water.  The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.
     This bird was falling and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all.
     It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.
     The most beautiful.

He starts drawing copies of the Audubon prints.  The nasty brother rips one up once, which he takes in stride because he's used to being pushed around and abused.  So when one discovers the deep hostility of his father's abuse -- and Doug's emotional scars -- it really hits.

There are funny and touching moments too.  He learns to read and then tries out his skills on the kids he babysits for.  I figured you'd appreciate this line, Annie:
And it wasn't like you could read to all of them at once, or even three of them, or two.  It was five kids, five books.
     This takes a long time.  I'm not lying.
     But I didn't care, because I figured it all out, thanks to Miss Cowper's County Literacy Unit.
     I figured out Sam-I-Am for Phronsie.
     I figured out Circus McGurkus for Davie.
     I figured out Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack for Joel.
     I figured out Andy and the thorn in the lion's paw for Polly.
     And I even figured out why Wilbur is one terrific pig for Ben.
     You know what this feels like, to figure all this out?
     Do you really know what it feels like?
Okay, so now I'm coming to the problematic part: the ending.  There are a lot of bad things that happen in among the good things.  But almost all of it gets resolved.  People change.  Those who can't communicate learn to listen to each other.  Young romance stays true.  The town's suspicions are dispelled.  Parents reconcile.  There's even the implication that the horrendous dad has turned a new leaf. 

I want to say, Yes, but...

This is a book aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds.  We don't need gritty realism throughout.  There's a lot to think about in this book, and the bad things people do to each other -- especially the bad stuff adults do to kids -- is harsh.  But it's well written:  one can imagine inhabiting that life.  But I just don't believe a father who's been uncommunicative and violent to his entire family is all of a sudden going to realize that kind of behavior is a bad thing and stop.  So how do we present the world to a ten year-old?  Look, there's bad stuff, some parents hit their kids.  Do we end on a more realistic but depressing note, saying that kind of parent isn't going to stop?  Or do we hand out a little hope with the bad news?  Schmidt opted for the hope.  I wish he'd found a more nuanced way to deal with it, but it's still a really good book.




  1. Wait -- he's reading to the Five Little Peppers? I think that sold me on the book right there, happy ending or no happy ending.

  2. A lot of my students like problem novels, but Schmidt tends to have more of an adult sensibility to his books. I will have to read this one first. And a kid is reading Five Little Peppers? Even in 1968, that was an odd choice.

  3. Oh wow, I didn't catch the Five Little Peppers reference (haven't read it since childhood), although I kept thinking, Phronsie? Phronsie? He's not reading 5LP; Schmidt has just given their names to the kids Doug babysits.

  4. My youngest has this Audubon on the room of her wall. We found it at an auction (along with 2 others) and we joke it is our retirement fund. If only!