Dedicated Christian educators, whether they work in public school, private school, or home school settings, often desire to share Christian themes and values with their students in an appropriate manner. The world of children’s literature offers unlimited possibility to encourage a discussion of important ideas such as sacrifice, forgiveness, hope, faith, and much more. Many educators are simply unaware of the wealth of outstanding books written recently for children. One such book written for 5th-8th graders is Okay for Now, a coming of age novel by award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt.
Eighth-grader Doug Swieteck, our improbable protagonist, tries to make the best of his very imperfect world, which includes an abusive father, two bullying brothers, and an unwanted move to a place he terms “Stupid Marysville.” The book is set in the late 60s, a time of protest, rebellion, and war, but also a time of inspiration, hope, and sending a man to the moon. “To the moon!” Will Doug give in and become more like his father, a self-centered and unloving man? Or will he somehow rise above all the negative influences and choose for himself the kind of person he becomes?
In the Marysville library, Doug comes face to face with a book that will change his life. It is a book “as tall as a good-sized baseball bat,” opened to a picture of an Arctic Tern, a bird Doug relates to immediately. “He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea…The 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.” Doug has experienced plenty of fear and loneliness, but not so much beauty, at least not yet. He soon learns that this book is a collection of paintings by John James Audubon, and that, shockingly, the community has begun slicing out pages of the book, one by one, selling them to pay bills for the town. Doug now has a purpose: to find these paintings and get them back into the book. “When you find something that’s whole, you do what you can to keep it that way. And when you find something that isn’t, then maybe it’s not a bad idea to try to make it whole again. Maybe.” It will not be easy getting them back. As a result of his determination, creativity, and indomitable spirit in attempting to restore this book to its original beauty, Doug discovers that he, too, has been changed.
Each chapter of Okay for Now begins with a black and white Audubon painting. The author masterfully weaves the bird’s story into what is occurring in Doug’s life. The Arctic Tern brings out the fear and loneliness Doug is experiencing. The Red-Throated Divers picture seems to represent Doug’s family dynamics with an absent father, two brothers on their own, and a mother doing all she can to protect her youngest son from harm. Other paintings suggest ideas of nobility, balance, and doing what is right, even when the consequences will be severe.
In Okay for Now, we see the best and worst of what community has to offer. At times, the people of Marysville, many whom Doug has come to know through his Saturday grocery deliveries, treat Doug unfairly, assuming he is as guilty as his older brother whom they believe robbed a local store. The school community, disappointingly, is no better. Most of the teachers are suspicious, and the principal (who annoyingly speaks of himself in the third person) seems intent on making an example of Doug. But at their best, both the community of Marysville and the school community of Washington Irving Junior High School show themselves to be supportive, sacrificial, and inspiring. Because of Mr. Ferris, a caring science teacher with a passionate enthusiasm about the Moonshot, Doug realizes that even his own life might be filled with possibility.
Throughout the book, we see examples of how relationships, as well as art, passion, and beauty can uplift, inspire, and transform. With the help of Mr. Powell, the librarian, Doug discovers that he is an artist, a co-creator. Learning to draw gives him inexpressible joy, as does finding one of the missing Audubon plates and restoring it to the book.
A savvy reading teacher will never run out of ways to use this book to teach symbolism, allusions, voice, conflict, character development, and author’s technique. For example, readers will quickly notice that the author often incorporates the repeated phrase. (Stupid Marysville. Terrific. Possibility. I’m not lying.) Related research ideas are plenteous, including the obvious topics of Vietnam, the Moonshot, and the Audubon paintings.
Okay for Now can lead to deep discussions about forgiveness, redemption, grace, perseverance, balance, kindness, and much more. Christian educators working in public school, private school, or home school settings will find this book filled with possibility.
I’m not lying.