|Image from HMHBooks.com|
It’s 1968 and life is rough for 14 year old Doug Swieteck. His unhappy father takes his frustrations out on the family physically and verbally and Doug’s older brother never misses a chance to torture him. So Doug isn’t exactly optimistic when his father gets a job at a paper mill in upstate New York. In fact, Doug is pretty sure that his new home in “stupid” small town Marysville is going to be horrible. And it is, at first. But then little things, good things, begin to creep into Doug’s life. He meets an annoyingly smart girl, becomes a deli delivery boy, and discovers the public library. But it’s what he finds on the second floor of the library that connects the jumbled pieces of Doug’s life. What does he find? A breathtaking artic tern painted by John James Audubon. Although his new life in Marysville is sometimes rocky, filled with school bullies, the return of his soldier brother from Vietnam, and his father’s questionable friend Ernie, the good things in Doug’s life slowly begin to outweigh the bad.
This book, named an ALA Notable Children’s Book and listed as an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Pick, strikes a delicate balance of emotional highs and lows. It is at times laugh at loud funny and at others heartbreakingly sad. So many bad things happen to Doug, this book could easily wander into a depressing mire, but it doesn’t. This is due to the captivating first person voice of Doug. Doug’s transformation from an uninterested tough kid to a vibrant and curious individual is believable and engaging. Schmidt handles serious subjects including abuse, family problems, the effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers, and bulling in a candid, but age appropriate way. Each chapter begins with a greyscale picture of a single John James Audubon painting that relates to Doug’s life in often unexpected ways. The ending was a bit disappointing, as it seemed to come out of nowhere and was a little too good to be true. However, Schmidt’s ability to weave a fascinating story overshadows this minor fault. This book is a companion to Schmidt’s earlier, The Wednesday Wars, in which Doug is first introduced as a supporting character. However, readers can enjoy this book with or without previous knowledge of Doug.
Read an excerpt of the book or listen to a clip of the audiobook and get drawn in by Doug’s unique and honest voice.
*Bring in books that feature birds painted by John James Audubon. Have kids pick a bird and practice contour drawing as Doug does in the book. The book that Doug looks at is Birds of America by John James Audubon.
*Doug and his classmates read Jane Eyre and Doug makes many references to the plot and characters. Talk about the plot of Jane Eyre, have kids read sections from the book out loud, or have kids read an abridged or complete version of the story.
*Check out the educator’s guide from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for discussion questions, activities, and trivia questions.
*Other chapter books by Schmidt:
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 11+ / Grade 6+