The Wednesday Wars- Gary D. Schmidt

I’m going to default to a Goodreads summary here, as it’s been too long since I finished reading this.

Meet Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader at Camillo Junior High, who must spend Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, while the rest of the class has religious instruction. Mrs. Baker doesn’t like Holling—he’s sure of it. Why else would she make him read the plays of William Shakespeare outside class? But everyone has bigger things to worry about, like Vietnam. His father wants Holling and his sister to be on their best behavior: the success of his business depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has so much to contend with? A bully demanding cream puffs; angry rats; and a baseball hero signing autographs the very same night Holling has to appear in a play in yellow tights! As fate sneaks up on him again and again, Holling finds Motivation—the Big M—in the most unexpected places and musters up the courage to embrace his destiny, in spite of himself.– From Goodreads

I read this because I really enjoyed Okay for Now which is a companion/spin-off novel dealing with Doug Swieteck, one of the minor characters in The Wednesday Wars.  As a result, it is really hard for me not to compare the two books and two main characters.  Both Doug and Holling are somewhat outcast boys who have difficult relationships with their families, but come to find some passion for art and literature through their teachers and community mentors and who start seeing the world through more adult eyes as the Vietnam War escalates and affects the lives of those near them.  The major difference, though, is that Holling seems to begin at a much less difficult starting point than Doug and as a result, his story is less hit-you-in-the-gut with emotions.  I still like Holling, I still rooted for him, I still wanted what was best for him, I still laughed and cried with him, but if you want to see someone overcoming extraordinary adversity, Doug is your guy.

What makes these books so special (and completely worthy of the Newberry talk/Honor Awards they’ve received) is the great characters and their development.  Holling is absolutely a 12-year-old boy starting to come of age.  He struggles with the high expectations of his father and worries about what his peers think of him.  Yet, at the same time, he’s starting to explore things for himself– like Shakespeare– that have him questioning his path.  Who does he want to be?  And does he have the courage to aim for that, when those around keep trying to pin him into roles they’ve chosen for him?

Another thing I really appreciate about Schmidt’s books is his portrayal of sibling relationships.  A lot of YA characters are only children and this drives me nuts, as a lot of my childhood and adolescence was shaped by my relationships with my sisters.  Holling doesn’t really get along with his older sister, as she is 16, an aspiring Flower Child, and is way too cool to bother herself with her brother.  But… Holling has several moments where he does something that shows he cares about his sister and they were really sweet.  Siblings don’t always get along or even hang out with one another, but there is a deep bond between them and I like seeing it in books I read!

Anyways, I highly recommend you check out both The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt if you are fan of the coming-of-age story.  They’re full of great characters, literature, art, and some funny and heart-wrenching moments!

I read/reviewed this book in conjunction with the Series Catch-Up 2012.

Okay for Now- Gary D. Schmidt

Goodreads summary:

“The Dump” is what Doug Swieteck calls his new home in upstate New York. He lands there in the summer of 1968, when the Apollo space missions are under way, Joe Pepitone is slugging for the New York Yankees, and the Vietnam War is raging. At home he lives with a father who has lost his way and a brother accused of robbery. And Doug’s oldest brother is returning from Vietnam. Who knows what wounds his missions have given him?

But Doug has his own mission, too, and it begins when he first sees the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America at the local library. His mission will lead him to Lil Spicer, who shows him how to drink a really cold Coke, to Mrs. Windermere, who drags him to a theater opening, and to the customers of his Saturday grocery deliveries, who together will open a world as strange to him as the lunar landscape.

Swieteck, who first appeared in Gary D. Schmidt’s Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars, will discover the transforming power of art over disaster in a story about creativity and loss, love and recovery, and survival

I listened to Okay for Now on audiobook read by Lincoln Hoppe.  Hoppe is the perfect narrator for this story.  He’s got the right sort of accent for a kid from Long Island and he nails the tone of all the rhetorical questions Doug peppers his story with.  This was also a great audiobook experience because the story is pretty linear… no jumping between characters or times or places.

Doug Swieteck (who I kept accidentally calling Todd for some reason) is such a great character.  His jerk of a father uproots the family from their home in Long Island to take a job at a paper mill in stupid Marysville, New York (Doug’s words, not mine) in the summer of 1968.  Doug is stuck trying to battle the negative impressions people have of him because of his twisted criminal brother and his drunk, abusive, loud-mouth father.  He has several devastating secrets.  And not so secretly, he’s poor and can be a smart ass.  But in spite of all those things stacked up against him, Doug manages to create a life for himself in Marysville.  He makes friends, he discovers his talents, works hard at school, and discovers the amazing community around him.  His resilience was pretty incredible.  I, like the citizens in Marysville, couldn’t help but love this boy.  I cried for him.  I laughed with him.  My heart swelled when good things happened for him and broke when bad things happened.

My only complaint is that the heartwrenching beauty of the book diminishes as the book goes on.  Nearly everyone ends up with a happy ending, some of which involve over-the-top scenarios, melodramatic circumstances, and bending a character or two until they are almost broken.  I was thrilled that Doug got a happy ending, but I am not sure it was the appropriate ending for this story.

Still, I think this a really great book and would highly recommend it to anyone who likes well-done child characters and coming-of-age/into-one’s-own stories.  It will have you both laughing and tearing up!

Bonus Points*

  1. Baseball– Doug is a big Yankees fan (booooo) and will often drop baseball stats into the story.  He also will describe his life in stats.  As a baseball fan, this was a pretty endearing part of the story.
  2. Audubon– I’m not sure if the Audubon paintings are included in the print edition of this book, but I had to google all of them just to get an image of them.  Schmidt does a nice job of using the different birds to symbolize different stages in Doug’s life.
  3. The language–  Doug has a very particular way of speaking and there are certain phrases he uses repeatedly (“stupid Marysville, New York” or “my brother’s twisted criminal mind” for example) and this really makes his character come to life.  I’m not lying, it’s pretty great.  (that’s another of his, too.)

Other Reviews:
The Librarian Who Doesn’t Say Shhh! inspired me to pick this one up and I’m so glad I did!

*I am borrowing this little feature from Candice at The Grown-Up YA because it is an awesome way to share some random tidbits about a book!