|Okay for Now
by Gary Schmidt
by Brian Selznick
Oh, the delicious irony. A guy who draws stick-figure cartoons gets to judge which book is better on its literary merits… the one written by the Caldecott-winning author or the one written by the two-time Newbery Honor winner. Perhaps the meek shall inherit the earth after all.
First, I must confess that when I received my copies of Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick, and Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt, I had to re-acquaint myself with the notion of a physical book. I consume plenty of books… I just don’t read any. Because I do my cartoon drawings at night during what would otherwise be prime reading time, if I want to enjoy a book, I have to put on a pair of headphones and multitask. Every novel I’ve purchased over the past five years has been an audiobook, so all of my “reading” comes courtesy of my ears, not my eyes.
So it really was exciting to unwrap these two great paper tomes, throw on a pair of reading glasses, sit down in a comfortable chair, and dig in.
I started with Okay for Now (and at the time, I didn’t realize it was available as an audiobook, having foolishly searched for “O.K. for Now” on iTunes) because it looked less intimidating than Selznick’s massive novel. Cracking Schmidt’s book and reading the first page, I felt disoriented… without having someone reading to me, I didn’t know how the narrator should sound. Luckily, Schmidt made that part easy for me. Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck’s voice rings clear as a bell, and by the third page, I felt like I knew him. In some ways, Doug is your typical middle schooler. He can be sarcastic and he puts up a tough front for his peers and teachers, but it’s easy to see through these defense mechanisms to the basic goodness right below the surface. It’s Doug’s vulnerability that makes him most appealing.
And vulnerable he is. Doug is in a difficult situation, having moved to a new town, led there by a father whose volcanic temper snuffs out any chance his family might have at finding happiness in a new place. When school starts, Doug quickly becomes a pariah, suffering under the combined weight of his older brother’s bad reputation and a humiliating tattoo etched on his skin, a “birthday gift” forced on Doug by his drunken father. (Dark stuff here.)
The tattoo is one of several revelations that are forced into the open by the narrative, crucial bits of information that the narrator is not willing to offer on his own. Doug is not an unreliable narrator; he simply tells the reader only what they need to know, and sometimes much less. Schmidt’s greatest achievement in Okay for Now is the restraint with which he allows his narrator to tell his story. Nowhere is this restraint better exercised than on the last page, when Schmidt lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions about how the story will really end.
At the heart of Okay for Now is the sense of wonder Doug feels as he discovers a book of drawings by John Audubon in a public library. Doug is captivated by the complicated and seemingly ever-changing emotions expressed by the birds in the drawings… emotions that Doug is experiencing in real time. Doug’s quest to find the missing folios of the book mirrors his quest to make himself whole. By the end, whatever the outcome of the narrative, the reader is left with no doubt that Doug has achieved what he set out to do. And so has Schmidt. Okay for Now in a word? As Doug would say: “Terrific.”
It’s not surprising that a similar sense of wonder permeates Brian Selznick’s “novel in words and pictures,” Wonderstruck. Some judges in the Battle of the Kids’ Books have complained that choosing between their books is like comparing apples and oranges, but both of my entries have the same basic plot: middle-school boy finds healing through the power of art/discovery. I feel like my two books are at least in the same ballpark. Call it McIntosh vs. Red Delicious.
I took a deep breath as I dragged Selznick’s book off of my desk and onto my lap. You don’t see books this size without Game of Thrones written on them (excellent audiobook, by the way). I was relieved when I flipped through the book and discovered that Selznick has employed the same method he used for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, using copious illustrations to advance the story. This is one book whose audio version would be absolute rubbish.
Wonderstruck is the story of Ben, a boy whose mother has recently passed away and whose father’s identity is a mystery. Early on in the book, Ben is the victim of a lightning strike that renders him unable to hear. A parallel story, and one that’s initially much more difficult to decode, is the story of Rose, a girl who is deaf, growing up 50 years before Ben. Rose’s story is told entirely through pictures, and the soundless panels perfectly mimic Rose’s soundless world for the reader.
Like Schmidt, Selznick keeps his secrets close to the vest, unveiling them at the moment of maximum impact. Rose’s condition isn’t revealed until we’ve had a chance to try to understand her motivations and her world. It’s a powerful moment when we realize that Rose’s one outlet, cinema, will be forever changed when the silent films she enjoys give way to “talkies.”
Just as Selznick deprives the reader the ability to hear in Rose’s world, he deprives the reader the ability to see in Ben’s world. Only at the moment when Rose’s story and Ben’s stories intersect are we able to visualize Ben and his world. Powerful stuff, and something achievable only in the hybrid medium Selznick has created.
Wonderstruck is told in simple prose and charcoal drawings, but its emotional impact is visceral. It’s not often that I’m moved by a book… that’s what movies are for, after all… but Selznick has created a new medium and mastered it all at once. His book, in a word: “Wondrous.”
And now to tally things up, just as Doug would do:
Prose: Okay for Now
Voice: Okay for Now
Illustrations: Let’s give this one to Selznick, even though Audubon was pretty good.
Jane Eyre references: Okay for Now
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler references: Wonderstruck
Didn’t-see-that-coming secrets: Tie
Emotional impact: Wonderstruck
By my tally, that’s Wonderstruck by a hair.
– Judge Jeff Kinney
And the Winner of this match is……
Oh, my! Quite an upset! As Jeff noted in his critique, and as we have hashed out again and again and again on Heavy Medal, Doug’s voice is pretty amazing and his story resonates so strongly and clearly with readers that OKAY FOR NOW should have a long life, if not in the zombie round then in the hearts of its many fans. As with HEART AND SOUL, I’m happy to finally have an integrated discussion of the merits of WONDERSTRUCK, and who could make that case better than a fellow author/illustrator: Just as Selznick deprives the reader the ability to hear in Rose’s world, he deprives the reader the ability to see in Ben’s world. Only when Rose’s story and Ben’s stories intersect are we able to visualize Ben and his world . . . Selznick has created a new medium and mastered it all at once. Now can it succeed where A MONSTER CALLS failed? Can it beat LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM?
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
The thing is, Okay for Now has a truly large emotional impact. As Mr. Kinney points out, Wonderstruck does too, but I would at least consider it a tie. Selznick’s prose is just too simple, however, and his plot is as well. When Rose’s and Ben’s stories intersect is amazing, but that is the main thing that makes the book great (besides the illustrations). On the bright side, this saves me from the dreaded Okay for Now vs. Life: An Exploded Diagram, which would be a real headache although I probably prefer Life.
– Kid Commentator RGN