Tag Archives: books

Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt, 2011, Book Review (Kind of)

okay for nowI have one word for you:  A.m.a.z.i.n.g.

Gary Schmidt has long been one of my favorite authors. In fact, I’ve kind of made him my very own personal back-pocket author. Years ago, when I was freshly out of college and toying with a writing hobby, I discovered his book, Anson’s Way.  I finished the last page, closed the cover and just looked at it there in my hand. “I want to write like that,” I told myself. Shortly thereafter, I began my first novel, The Color of Freedom.

Sometime later, I discovered that Mr. Schmidt taught at a college very close to my house. Not the school I had attended, but one I often visited to make use of its library. Gary Schmidt was practically my neighbor! How do you think it felt when I found out my very own personal back-pocket author lived almost in my backyard? You got it. I started my second novel, The Quill Pen.

When Schmidt’s book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy took Newbery honors, I read it twice, and I attended a writing conference where I heard Mr. Schmidt speak. I started my third novel, The Candle Star.

Schmidt’s next book, The Wednesday Wars, also took Newbery honors, and I lamented the tragedy that it didn’t win the medal outright. (This is my favorite Schmidt book, one I highly recommend you all read.) I wrote Mr. Schmidt a very nice letter letting him know how much I appreciated his work over the years and shared how it influenced me to pursue my own writing career. He wrote a very nice reply, including some encouragement and a few tips. You know how it feels when your very own personal back-pocket author sends you a letter of encouragement? Kind of like when you finish writing the last page of your very own story and you look down at it there in your hand and you know it’s exactly right. I started my fourth novel, Broken Ladders.

This spring, after a million revisions of each, I self-published three of my four (so far) novels. I bet you can guess how that felt! And Mr. Schmidt released another book–this one, Okay for Now. Again I say, amazing!

Within, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck (one of the minor characters in Wednesday Wars) moves to a stupid town in upstate New York with his horrible family. And I’m not lying, I mean horrible. His father is a world-class jerk and his brother is a chump. But Lil Spicer isn’t so bad, and neither is Mr. Powell, down at the library, who teaches Doug to draw from a collection of bird prints by artist John James Audubon. Doug’s other brother comes home from Vietnam much different than when he left. And Principal Peattie never does stop talking in the third person, even when he turns out not so bad as Doug thought.

This isn’t a high-action thriller. Honestly, nothing too exciting happens in stupid upstate Marysville. Except the residents turn out to be the real good kind of neighbors. Except a whole family undergoes some much needed changes. Except Doug finds out that he, like Audubon’s birds, has very strong wings. This one’s a powerful feel lousy/feel good kind of book that keeps you reading simply because you can’t disentangle yourself from the people inside its covers. Look for this one to be in the running for some big awards.

In the meantime, Gary Schmidt has inspired me to go big as well. I’m not going to settle for self-publishing the last of my four (so far) novels. No, I want more for The Quill Pen. I want to know what it feels like for an agent say, “I love it!” and for a publisher to say, “This is just the sort of story we’re looking for!” and for a reader to write to me and say, “Your work inspires me!” Gary D. Schmidt knows how that feels, but I don’t. Not yet. But I bet it feels like, well, like when Joe Pepitone belted one right out of Yankee Stadium during the World Series. And I’m not lying. I bet it feels just like that.

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians), by Rick Riordan, 2005, Book Review

the lightning thief“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life. 

Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.”

Percy Jackson is a troubled twelve-year-old who’s been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD and been kicked out of every school he’s ever attended. Then in sixth grade, his life really starts to tank. Particularly when his pre-algebra teacher turns into a bat-winged monster and tries to kill him. Things go from bad to worse until he learns he’s only half human. Then the fun really begins.

Rick Riordan’s imagination is astounding. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is a quest among the ancient Greek gods, a fresh and unique setting for tween readers. He kept me on the edge of my seat all the way to the end of the book with a great mix of suspense, action and a hilarious writing style. Consider some of my favorite moments:

“Mr. Brunner was this middle-aged guy in a motorized wheelchair. He had thinning hair and a scruffy beard and a frayed tweed jacket, which always smelled like coffee.”

“He looked like a cherub who’d turned middle-aged in a trailer park.”

“Standing behind us was a guy who looked like a raptor in a leisure suit.”

The one drawback to using the ancient gods in a book for kids is their legendary tendency toward promiscuity. In Camp Half-Blood, where Percy goes for the summer, a cabin is built for each god to collect all the cast-off children he or she has created with mortals. In a book for kids, this background of complete social dysfunction makes me cringe. But Riordan’s handling of it never crosses any bounds of propriety, never prompts kids to start asking questions that demand uncomfortable answers. It’s simply a pitfall of featuring gods. I greatly appreciate the restraint Riordan uses concerning inappropriate language. It’s nice to make a recommendation without having to include that post script.

One of my favorite things about The Lightning Thief is the way it becomes personal immediately. Warning kids right off that they might share Percy’s half-blood condition, that they too might be in danger, lends his predicament authenticity and sends a thrill of danger through the reader. It sure caught me right away. Riordan also makes effective use of his chapter titles. With headings like “I Accidentally Vaporize my Pre-algebra Teacher” and “Grover Unexpectedly Loses his Pants,” what kid isn’t going to keep reading?

I know I’m coming to this series extremely late, but there may be others even more behind the times than me. On the chance that you, reader, happen to be one of the twenty-five Americans left who haven’t read it yet, let me encourage you to look up Percy Jackson. I give this book my enthusiastic, whole-hearted approval. Be assured, I will be looking up the sequels. They are:

 

Surviving Me, by Reginald Raab, Book Review

surviving meIf you are a boy, if you’ve ever been a boy, if you have sons or brothers, you will laugh out loud as you read this book.  Reginald Raab, language arts teacher at Pine Street Elementary, draws on some of his own experiences to create this most outrageous story.  From a bee sting/first date catastrophe, to a bite by a forty pound snapping turtle, from a bare butt stuck on the principal’s icy car, to a game of hockey on a not-so-frozen sewer pond, fourteen-year-old Ben travels from one hilarious situation to the next.  Accompanied by a cast of loyal friends, he navigates self-induced disasters throughout his first year of high school and in the process learns a little bit about growing up.

Surviving Me reads more like a series of anecdotes than a smoothly-ordered tale, but the scenes build on each other and tie together in an emotional climax.  The story’s most appealing asset, however, is humor.  Mr. Raab had me chuckling to myself time and again.  He has an amazing talent for thinking up quirky word pictures.  And with his deft use of exaggeration and a teenager’s distinctive point of view, he spins each scene into a comedy.  Consider my favorite, Ben’s first date:

I screamed.  “OUCH!!!!”  If felt like a bullet went through my spine.  I jumped forward screaming.  “Ahhh!!!  Help me.  Ahhh!!!”

Chrissie looked at me in horror – then grabbed my shoulders.  “What’s wrong?  Don’t you like me?”

My body was twisting and contorting.  I reached for the door in desperation.

Her dad slammed on the brakes screeching to a halt.

I jumped out pulling at the back of my shirt.

Her dad got out and clutched my clothing.  “What is it boy!?”

I was breathing like I was giving birth – in a series of pants.  “Something bit me in the spine!”

He pulled up my shirt.  “Woaw!  I’ve never seen that kind before.  Hold still a minute.”  He grabbed a pair of tweezers out of the emergency pack from his trunk.  “It’s still lodged in your skin.”

“What is it!?” I demanded.  “A bullet-!?”

Chrissie gasped.

“A bee,” he said like it was a piece of lint or something.

Chrissie looked at my back and laughed.

I felt a tug as if he were pulling a foot long stinger out of my back.

“You’re okay now.”

I turned expecting to see a bee the size of his fist.  I kept looking.  I squinted and leaned in closer to his hand.  Then I saw it on the tip of his tweezers.  I was thinking this must be a little part of it where is the rest of him?

He dropped it to the ground.  Not that you could see it fall or anything being the size of an atom.

Unfortunately, the book has one drawback – the editing staff at Publish America. The book has many punctuation and spelling errors, even a slip from first person to third.  In fact, when Ben and his friends prepare to break into an adoption office, the sign on the door read, “Gone to lunch: be back in an our.”  Ben then quips, if their security is as bad as their spelling, this will be easy.  I had become so accustomed to typos that I needed to read the segment twice before the pun registered.  This is so unfortunate, because the book is otherwise very engaging.

I would still highly recommend Surviving Me, probably for readers ages 10-13, even though the main character is slightly older.  The book walks a fine line between the middle reader/YA category, but tweens and emerging teens, I believe, will best appreciate the humor of Ben’s crazy antics.  Adults, however, shouldn’t rule this one out – especially those adults who still laugh over the stunts they pulled as kids.

Find a copy online.  Or for better deal, pick up a copy at the Pine Street Elementary school library.