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Originally published Friday, April 8, 2011 at 4:01 PM

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Vietnam-era 'Okay for Now' draws story of teen bully

Kids' books: Although it's aimed at kids ages 10 to14, many adults would enjoy "Okay for Now," with its powerful, Vietnam-era story and writing that reaches directly into readers' hearts.

Scripps Howard News Service

Every now and then, a truly remarkable book is published. "Okay For Now" (Clarion, $16.99) is one of those books.

Although it's aimed at kids ages 10 to14, many adults would enjoy this book, with its powerful, Vietnam-era story and writing that reaches directly into readers' hearts. It's only April, but already this book is being touted as a strong contender for the 2012 Newbery Medal. The winner of that award, given annually to the best-written children's book, will be announced in January.

Written by Gary Schmidt, a two-time Newbery Honor winner, "Okay For Now" combines several disparate story strands: an exploration of a young bully's family background and his efforts to change his life; a look at the emotional cost paid by soldiers maimed in the Vietnam War; and the ethics of a town's decision to pay its bills by selling off pages of a copy of "Birds of America" by John James Audubon.

All of these threads are masterfully woven into a narrative built around images from "Birds of America." Each chapter opens with an image from the Audubon book, and Schmidt uses the images as a reflection of what's going on in the life of his emotionally and physically battered protagonist, a middle-schooler named Doug Swieteck.

But the Audubon images do more than mirror the state of Doug's life. Schmidt also shows how the images inspire Doug to try drawing. This opens up a new world of possibility to Doug, whose life has been, up to this point, circumscribed by the cruel whims of an abusive father.

Doug was first introduced to readers in "The Wednesday Wars," for which Schmidt won a 2008 Newbery Honor, a runner-up citation. In that book, Doug is a minor character, confined mostly to the role of the schoolyard bully. In "Okay For Now" however, Doug gets to tell his own compelling story, allowing readers to better understand why he approaches the world in such a pugilistic manner.

As the book opens, Doug learns that his family is moving — immediately. His father, who seethes with constant anger at the world, has found a new blue-collar position in a different town after being fired for fighting with his boss.

No one is happy about the move to Marysville, especially Doug's passive mother, who realizes that it will bring the family into closer contact with Ernie Eco, her husband's criminally inclined friend. Yet no one dares complain because they don't want to incur Mr. Swieteck's emotional and physical wrath.

For Doug, the end-of-summer move means he will start eighth grade at a new school in a town where he knows no one. Fortunately, he quickly meets two people who will play key roles in his life: Lil Spicer, whose dad owns Spicer's Deli, where Doug gets a job delivering groceries on Saturday; and Mr. Powell, who works at the Marysville Public Library and teaches Doug how to draw, using the Audubon prints in a book on display there.

Life seems to be on the upswing for Doug, whose newfound confidence allows him to shed some of his aggressive swagger. Things head downward, however, when Doug's older brother is suspected of theft, tarring the entire family's reputation. Then there's the town's decision to sell the Audubon plates — one by one — from the book in the library's display case, a decision that Doug sees as a desecration of art.

Most problematic is the return of Lucas, the oldest Swieteck brother, from Vietnam. He's missing both legs, and it's uncertain whether he will ever see again.

As always, however, challenges present both difficulties and opportunities, and Schmidt shows how Doug, emboldened by the discovery of his art talent and his new friendships, learns to stand up for himself and those he loves without having to resort to his previous bullying behavior.

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In a recent interview, Schmidt said it was difficult to write about the abuse Doug endured from his father, and the way it incited him to become a bully himself.

Like the Audubon book, whose pages are being cut out, "Doug is a kid that's been sliced up, and he wants to be a whole person," Schmidt said. "It's all about becoming whole. ... The abuse he's gone through has been passed down through the family — there has to be someone to break the chain."

Schmidt, 54, is an English professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the father of six children, ages 14 to 27. The family lives on a farm in nearby Alto, where Schmidt writes in an outbuilding, using a 1953 Royal typewriter.

Schmidt published his first children's book, "The Sin Eater," in 1996. He won his first Newbery Honor in 2005 for "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy."

Schmidt is working on the third, and final, book in the series begun by "The Wednesday Wars." He's also completed a fantasy for children.

"I write for the huge pleasure it brings, to create a work that a young reader would pick up," he said. "I want to be among those who see as their artistic mission the bringing of fine art to kids."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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