Thursday, January 25, 2018


I took a trip up to the Bay Area last weekend. It’s a 5.5 hour drive (without traffic) from LA, and I settled into the driver’s seat, automatically reaching for a familiar audiobook: Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, read by Lincoln Hoppe. It’s a trip I’ve made several times and a story I’ve listened to several times more since its publication in 2011, yet it has never failed to elicit the same depth of emotion each time. It draws me back to a place I’d never visited and a time I’d never experienced: a small town in upstate New York in 1968, the peak of the Vietnam War era.

Fourteen year old Doug Swieteck is starting eighth grade in a new school in a new town, where his father has just secured a new job after being fired for a poor attitude and a questionable work ethic. The Dump, his family’s latest residence, is small and dingy. His father is spiteful. His older brother is a menace. His gentle mother rarely smiles anymore. And Doug can’t think of a single good thing about the stupid town they've just moved to.

You can easily envision the trajectory for a kid like that: he’ll grow up to be a bully, a thief, a liar, a victim and a victimizer. And everyone else in town thinks so too-- including Doug himself.

Until he finds unexpected solace in a public library and purpose in a rare copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America. There’s something mesmerizing about the paintings in Audubon’s book, even for Doug, who would be the first to tell you he’s no artist. Soon he’s drawn into the stories he sees in each carefully crafted bird, which become the metaphor by which he interprets his world. His spirit soars and dives throughout the novel as he faces a deluge of circumstances that test his resolve to sketch a different future for himself.

Another librarian (whose name I unfortunately cannot recall) wrote in her review of the book that it had broken her heart and put it back together a thousand times. I can certainly relate to that feeling. There’s a lot to mull over here: the tangible and intangible effects of the war on returned veterans and their families, the dichotomy of wealth and poverty, the cyclical nature of abuse, and the problematic prejudices of adults. At the same time there’s the thrilling freedom of art, the unexpected kindness of others, the gentle glow of first love, the healing found in offering compassion even when it seems undeserved, and a long lingering note of Possibility. It’s a tale of resilience and redemption.

I highly recommend listening to the audio version of book (which still counts as reading, in case you’re wondering!) Lincoln Hoppe’s reading of Okay for Now received an American Library Association Odyssey Honor in 2012 as one of the best audiobooks produced for children and young adults, available in English in the United States.

A truly rewarding read for grades 6 and up.

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