NPR's Backseat Book Club
5:02 pm
Thu February 28, 2013

With Audubon's Help, Beat-Up Kid Is 'Okay For Now'

Originally published on Thu February 28, 2013 6:30 pm

Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has just moved to a new town, where he doesn't have any friends, and where his teachers — and the police — think of him as nothing more than a "skinny thug."

So it's easy to understand why Doug, the protagonist of our latest book for NPR's Backseat Book Club, Okay for Now, is anything but a happy-go-lucky kid.

"He has a beat-up situation, a beat-up family, a beat-up house," author Gary D. Schmidt explains to NPR's Michele Norris. "And he comes to a new town, trying to find a new way to start. But he brings all of his beat-upedness with him."

Eventually, Doug finds his way to the local library, where he discovers a beautiful edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America. When he notices that nine of the pages with plates of birds have been cut out with a razor blade, he resolves to track them down.

"Doug, who is so beat-up, wants one thing in his life, just one thing in his life, that's whole," says Schmidt. "He has no resources, no way to do it, but he's determined to try and get all nine of those plates back. So this is a novel about this kid trying to do that, surrounded by people who come to love and cherish him."

One particular bird in the Audubon book, an Arctic tern, makes a profound impression on Doug:

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 was trying to turn but couldn't. His eyes were round and bright and afraid. And his beak was opened 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.

Of course, Doug's hopeless interpretation is about much more than just the bird. It's a communion, of sorts.

"He looks at that picture and he sees his own life," says Schmidt. "He sees a bird or a living thing that's so beautiful falling out of the sky with nothing to support him at all. And in reality, the bird isn't falling out of the sky. He's going down to get something to eat. But Doug's perception is that he is alone and in trouble."

Schmidt puts a lot of trust in his young readers — trust that they will fill in the blanks when the emotionally beat-down Doug is slow to reveal all the complexities in his young life. And trust that they can handle the difficulties brought on by the adults in Doug's life — the abusive, alcoholic father, the diabolical gym teacher, and the big brother whose injury in Vietnam has an impact on everyone.

"You couldn't have been an adolescent during Vietnam and not been deeply affected by it and still carry that with you on some level," says Schmidt, adding that he wanted to impress upon young readers how pervasive the dangers and sacrifices of war were in that era, especially when so many young people had friends and family members whose names came up in the draft.

"In the spring of '68 your chances of being killed in Vietnam in the first 30 days are one in three. That's a pretty awful stat," Schmidt says. "But the wars that our middle and high school kids are living through are so, so hidden. And they seem so far away. ... I wanted to write a book that showed that this is what war is like, that when you're growing up, it really is the case these [wars] can be in your face and that they will affect how you act."

At the same time, says Schmidt, he also wanted to imbue his novel with the positive turbulence of the late 1960s — especially the space race.

"We're heading toward the moon — it's unbelievable," he says. "And all of these things are happening so fast."

Like Doug, the young Gary D. Schmidt was also underestimated by his teachers. He went to a school where students were classified by aptitude: "If you're Track One you're the college-bound kid; if you're Track Two you'll have a good job; if you're Track Three you're the stupid kid. And I was tracked as Track Three. ... I mean, we were going to serve french fries at McDonald's for the rest of our lives."

That meant Schmidt's early education didn't involve a lot of books or reading — until one day, a teacher intervened.

"I was taken up by a great, great teacher ... who just liked me," he says, "and who one day walked into my Track Three classroom, no kidding, and she takes me by the hand, and she says, 'Come with me.' And I left my Track Three classroom and I walked with her to her Track One classroom. And she put me at a desk that was right beside hers, and she had stuffed it with books, most of which were below my grade level, but which I couldn't read because I was Track Three — I was 'stupid.' And she taught me how to read. And I grew to love them."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDEREDfrom NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. And it's time now for the latest Backseat Book Club pick. That's when the program offers up a special treat for those in the backseat. We look for books that transport us to interesting places. And this month, it's a novel by Gary D. Schmidt. It's called "Okay For Now." The story takes us to 1968. NPR's Michele Norris takes us there.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: We meet middle-schooler Doug Swieteck in the middle of summer, a good time of year if you're a Yankee fan like Doug. And man, is it hot. So hot, Doug jumps in the sprinkler to try and keep cool. But Doug is anything but a happy-go-lucky kid. Author Gary Schmidt lays out Doug's story.

GARY D. SCHMIDT: He has a beat-up situation, a beat-up family, beat-up house and he comes to a new town trying to find a new way to start. But he brings all of his beat-upedness with him. In the course of time, he comes to a library and there he finds an amazing book, a beautiful book, Audubon's "Birds Of America."

And he sees that what's happened is that nine of the pages, these beautiful plates of birds have been razor-bladed out and have been removed from the book and sold independently. And Doug, who is so beat up, wants one thing in his life, just one thing in his life that's whole.

And he resolves that he will try and get all nine of those plates back. He has no resources, no way to do it, but he's determined. So this is a novel about this kid trying to do that, surrounded by people who come to love and cherish him.

NORRIS: When he first enters the library, it's the Maryville Public Library. It's only open on Saturdays, which tells you something about this small town and the resources in that small town. What does he see when he gets there?

SCHMIDT: He sees a table, a low table, with a case on top of it, a glass case and this is the scene.

(reading) Underneath the glass was this book, a huge book, a huge, huge book. Its pages were longer than a good-sized 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 was trying to turn but couldn't. His eyes were round and bright and afraid. And his beak was opened 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'd ever seen, the most beautiful.

NORRIS: Now, Doug is talking about the bird, but when he talks about the bird falling and that there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all, there was almost a communion for him, wasn't there? He was not just talking about that bird.

SCHMIDT: Absolutely. He looks at that picture and he sees his own life. He sees a bird or a living thing that's so beautiful falling out of the sky with nothing to support him at all. And in reality, the bird isn't falling out of the sky. He's going down to get something to eat. But Doug's perception is that he is alone and in trouble. And he, of course, is thinking about his own life. And I hope that's true for all the pictures all the way through.

NORRIS: Gary Schmidt puts a lot of trust in his young readers, trust that they will fill in the blanks when the emotionally beat-down Doug is slow to reveal all the complexities in his young life. And trust that they can handle the difficulties brought on by the adults in Doug's life - the abusive, alcoholic father, the diabolical gym teacher, and the impact on everyone when Doug's big brother is injured in Vietnam.

SCHMIDT: You couldn't have been an adolescent during Vietnam and not been deeply affected by it and still carry that with you on some level. I mean, when the draft comes in and suddenly people that you know are being drafted and they're only a few years older than you and they're going to Vietnam. But the wars that middle and high school kids are seeing or living through are so, so hidden and they seem so far away.

But during Vietnam, I mean, it's in our faces all the time. And yeah, I wanted to write a book that showed that this is what war is like, that when you're growing up, it really is the case these can be in your face and that they will affect how you act. And at the same time, I mean, this amazing thing, this wonderful space event that we're heading towards the moon, it's unbelievable.

And all of these things are happening so fast. There are space flights every two months or so heading up to the moon shot and how exciting that was.

NORRIS: When you were young, say about Doug's age, what was your favorite book?

SCHMIDT: Wow. Books, when I was young, when I was very young, were sort of threatening to me. I was tracked. We had a tracking system where you were put into various categories. And if you're track one, you're the college-bound kid; if you're track two you'll have a good job; if you're track three you're the stupid kid. And I was tracked as track three.

And that meant that we had few books in my early grades and that we were the kids, I mean, we were going to serve French fries at McDonald's for the rest of our lives. So I guess they didn't need to read. And so, early on, I didn't have a favorite book because I didn't like books. And then, I was taken up by a great, great teacher, the story that everyone should have, who just liked me and who one day walked into my track three classroom, no kidding, and she takes me by the hand and she says, come with me.

And I left my track three classroom and I walked with her to her track one classroom. And she put me at a desk that was right beside hers, and she had stuffed it with books, most of which were below my grade level, but which I couldn't read because I was track three and I was stupid. And she taught me how to read. And I grew to love them.

And I think the first one I really, really loved, I mean, I really, really loved was a book called "The Big Jump," by someone that we don't read anymore. His name was Benjamin Elkin and it was one of the first six I Can Read books, or beginner books. It was in the series that "Cat In The Hat" was in. About a boy who is presented with all sorts of problems - this going to sound familiar - and his own wit and guts gets him through it.

It's a brilliant book. "The Big Jump" by Benjamin Elkin.

NORRIS: What was that teacher's name?

SCHMIDT: Miss Kabikoff(ph).

NORRIS: Do you keep in touch with her?

SCHMIDT: No. I haven't and, geez, it was so many years ago, so I have not. I have completely lost touch with her, but she - yeah, I wouldn't be talking to you right now if it wasn't for Miss Kabikoff.

NORRIS: Maybe she's listening. Wouldn't that be something?

SCHMIDT: I hope so. She was amazing.

NORRIS: Well, in honor of Miss Kabikoff, thank you very much for talking to us today. It's been a real pleasure.

SCHMIDT: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure for me, too. Thank you.

NORRIS: That was author Gary Schmidt, remember his favorite book as a kid. His latest book, "Okay For Now," this month's Backseat Book Club pick is sure to be one of your favorites. Head to NPR.org to learn more about the book and the art of John James Audubon. I'm Michele Norris, NPR News.

CORNISH: The next Backseat Book Club book will touch people across generations. It's a timeless classic, "The Wizard Of Oz." Not the film, the book. So click your heels three times, read along and send your emails to BackseatBookClub@NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.