Review posted May 17, 2011.
Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Boston, 2011. 360 pages.
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Children's Fiction
Okay, I've found my early pick for the book I want to win the Newbery Medal next year. The story is told from the perspective of just the sort of kid I never liked, as a child or as an adult: A troublemaker, not interested in books or learning, with a smart mouth toward authority. I got halfway through the book and realized I was nuts about that kid and just wanted everything to go right for him.
The main character is Doug Swieteck, who was in The Wednesday Wars, but you don't have to have read The Wednesday Wars or remember what it was about. Right at the beginning, Doug's father gets himself fired, and the family has to move to Marysville, where Doug's father's drinking buddy found him a job at a paper mill.
Doug has a lot against him. He's an outsider at this new school, and the only new eighth grader. His father has quick hands. The whole town is convinced that he and his brother are hoodlums. It gradually dawns on the reader that Doug can't read. And it turns out to be a horrible thing that the gym teacher won't let him switch from the Skins team to the Shirts team. As for the principal, Gary Schmidt has created a completely odious, but frightfully believable villain:
Principal Peattie, who had been waiting for this moment and who decided to stretch things out and make me sweat, told me to sit in this chair by the secretary, which I did in my stupid gym uniform for almost half an hour before he opened his door and told me to come in and sit down and said that Principal Peattie had been expecting something like this all along and Principal Peattie was surprised that it hadn't happened sooner and Principal Peattie was going to throw the book at me so I learned my lesson and learned it good, and dang it, I should take this like a man and look Principal Peattie in the eye.
One bright spot is Doug's weekly visits to the Marysville Public Library, where the elderly lady librarian gives him dirty looks, but the other librarian, Mr. Powell, gives Doug art lessons over the pages of a book by John James Audubon. Each bird in each painting sticks in Doug's mind. Unfortunately, the library is selling off some of the pages because it needs money.
Doug's voice is believable and consistent throughout. He's got a pessimistic outlook, but he sneaks in some optimistic thinking when things feel good, and you find yourself so rooting for him. Here's a part early on, when he's figuring out how to draw the feathers of the Arctic Tern:
I looked at the feathers, and rolled the paper up to hide it beneath my bed, and unrolled it to look at the feathers again, and finally rolled it up and hid it beneath the bed. Then I turned out the light and lay down with my hands -- and the pencil smudge on my thumb -- back behind my head and I looked out the window. There was still a little bit of light left in the summer sky, and the birds were having a riot before turning in. A few stars starting up.
I couldn't keep myself from smiling. I couldn't. Maybe this happens to you every day, but I think it was the first time I could hardly wait to show something that I'd done to someone who would care besides my mother. You know how that feels?
So that's why I went to the Marysville Free Public Library every Saturday for the rest of August and on into September.
Not to read a book or anything.
It's hard to explain how incredibly good this book is. When I heard it described, it didn't sound like anything memorable. I knew, however, that Gary Schmidt's other books were outstanding, so I knew I had to give it a try. All I can say is: WOW!
There are lots more absolutely brilliant elements. Doug's class is reading an abridgement of Jane Eyre, and the author gives Doug an positively magnificent use of "Dear Reader" in the story. Later, Doug gets involved in a Broadway adaptation of the book, and his job is the voice of Bertha Mason. After that he freely uses many, many references to a shriek "like an insane woman who has been locked in an attic for a great many years." It's amazing how very often that exact sort of shriek is appropriate.
I found it slightly unbelievable how many things turned around and went right for Doug by the end, and how many awful adults gained understanding -- but I definitely liked it. (Especially after how horribly sad Lizzie Bright was.) The author does leave one major problem unresolved, but I refuse to believe anything but that one, also, will turn out okay. Doug will go far. And what do you know? I love that kid!