Gary D. Schmidt is an award winning young adult author who teaches at Calvin College, my alma mater. His books are deep, well crafted and multi-layered, yet very readable, full of humour, and witty. His specialty is coming-of-age stories. In a speech, he once shared his fascination with those transitional moments when a youngster leaves childhood and heads toward adulthood. Schmidt’s books appeal to people of all ages, in fact, I sometimes wonder if adults and judges like his books better than the middle school tweens his books are pitched at. Adults reading these books will remember how hard adolescence is and appreciate Schmidt’s humour and pathos around the difficulties of this age. Someone once said, “The only thing harder than going through adolescence is watching someone you love go through it.”
Middle school boys are notoriously difficult to hook into reading. When I was working as a high school librarian, I was always looking for those gems which were compelling and readable, yet well written. Books like Hunger Games and Harry Potter are the ones which would draw reluctant readers in, while Schmidt’s books would usually only be read by those who were already avid readers.
‘The Wednesday Wars’ is a slightly exaggerated comic tale of middle school woes. It features Holling Hoodhood a 7th grade student who must spend his Wednesday afternoons with his teacher Mrs. Baker because the rest of the class is receiving religious instruction. Holling feels he is being punished because the teacher, on those afternoons, makes him read Shakespeare. The story is set during the Vietnam War which adds a sober element to the story and places everyday muddles into perspective. Holling tries not to get into trouble, but this seems impossible when he has things like bullies and angry rats to deal with, and they’re making him wear yellow tights in the school play!
In a companion book to the ‘Wednesday Wars’ Doug Swieteck calls his new home “The Dump” and he endures a move to a small town where he knows no one and everyone else knows everyone. It’s 1968 when the Apollo space missions were happening and the Vietnam war was going on. He suffers from a number of abuses and is barely surviving complete despair. But when Doug makes a discovery at the local Public Library, things start to turn around. Someone kind takes an interest in him and he discovers that being passionate about something can make all the difference in the world. In ‘Okay for Now’ Schmidt gets a firm grasp on a heartbreaking topic and manages to coax out some hope and redemption. But in a realistic way, since we can all relate to a time when the answer to “How are you?” can only really be “Okay for now” and that’s okay. The earthy and gritty beginning to the story hooked me in immediately, but halfway through it became a bit unbelievable. Even though the ending was not ‘happily ever after’ for everyone in the story, I did find it got tied up a bit too neatly and too sweetly. I did love the way he wove the Audubon pictures of birds into the story.
‘Trouble’ grapples with the idea of how to live in a world with trouble. There are some very Calvinist themes in this book. The story begins with a tragedy that sparks racial tension between two communities. One night Henry’s older brother Franklin is accidentally hit by a pickup truck driven by his Cambodian classmate Chay Chouan. Henry’s father alway said, “If you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.” But what now? It is a study in contrast and is all about grace. Forgiveness and grace make things ok again, at least for now. Henry feels helpless in the situation but decides to act. After rescuing a Black Dog from drowning, he attempts to climb Mt. Katahdin, something he and Franklin were planning to do together. It becomes for him, not only an adventurous challenge, but a journey of redemption and self-discovery.