Gary Schmidt wrote a couple of my favorite ever middle-grade novels, The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, both richly human, honest, painful, and redemptive stories that get my highest recommendation for ages 13 and up — which is not the typical age group I write for here at Orange Marmalade so you have not heard me wax eloquent about them!
At any rate, when I see a new novel with his name on it, I snatch it up, and such is the case with his most recent title. I am always hoping for something that matches the aforementioned novels, and I have to admit, for me those two still shine out as his best. Yet this story, once again, digs into the pain and messiness of our human lives honestly, with copious warm flashes of humor, and an honest, measured resolution. Classic Gary Schmidt.
Pay Attention, Carter Jones, written by Gary D. Schmidt
published in 2019 by Clarion Books, HMH Books for Young Readers
The book interweaves a number of curious ingredients including a butler named Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick fresh from the Jeeves school of butlering, a dachshund named Nate, given to throwing up in moments of excitement, a gaggle of American boys taking on the game of cricket, and an absentee Dad on military assignment in Europe. In the background of the story lurk deep hurts, closely-guarded secrets, scars with obscured origins. Something profoundly painful has happened, or more than one something, and we, like the protagonist, do not fully understand what that is for quite some time.
Carter Jones, just beginning sixth grade, is only trying to muddle through the chaos of a household of small sisters and his first day at Longfellow Middle School when out of the blue, in the middle of a downpour, a strange fellow rings the doorbell and announces he’s a butler sent courtesy of his late British grandfather’s will to serve their household. Riding on Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick coattails are a host of highly-starched manners and expectations, gentlemanly routines and axioms, which do tend to grate on Carter’s nerves. Also a mean cup of tea!
One of his expectations is that Carter and the other boys in town will learn to play — and admire, mind you! — the game of cricket. It is an extraordinarily unusual notion to anchor an American novel, yet the ins and outs of the sport, its adoption by these middle-schoolers, and several pivotal, play-by-play games are key elements in the story.
As Carter both resists and adapts to Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick himself, as well as his ideas of the way a true gentleman comports himself in this world, he gradually faces up to his family’s significant loss and grief, unburdens a painful secret that haunts him, acknowledges his anger over betrayal, and chooses how he will respond to the hard knocks of life.
Schmidt is a master at the voice of a 12-year-old boy, the humor of middle-school life, the searing pain of loss and betrayal, and the hidden, glorious strength within ordinary people around us.. For those who have read Okay for Now, there is a character overlap here that will make you smile. Ages 12 and up.