Friday, May 20, 2011

The Power of Suggestion

As he emulates the artwork of John James Audubon, Doug Swieteck discovers that he cannot paint every feather on the Arctic Tern. Instead, he paints enough lines to suggest countless feathers. He learns that less is more. And his careful attention to detail keeps him firmly planted in the present. He is, as Gary Schmidt’s title suggests, Okay for Now.

Doug is up against some big challenges in the summer of 1968. He is new in town, about to start eighth grade at a new school, his oldest brother is fighting in Vietnam, his middle brother is being accused of burglary, and his father is verbally, often physically abusive. Yet a few key people believe in him. His mother, for one. And at least two teachers. But Mr. Powell may be the greatest influence on Doug. He notices Doug’s interest in the Audubon book at the Marysville Free Public Library, and he approaches Doug. They connect through their mutual admiration for Audubon. The librarian encourages Doug’s curiosity.

How does Audubon do it? How does he create the “terrified eye” of The Arctic Tern? The sense of impending doom in The Snowy Heron? Mr. Powell teaches Doug how to look carefully at these images and discover for himself the strategy for creating the mood in these plates as he sketches them. And as he sketches, Doug discovers a strategy for staying in the moment, finding a sense of calm, quieting the rumblings of what may be waiting for him at school or at home with his father. He begins to apply these tools to other areas of his life, and he begins to change.

In a moment of crisis, Doug figures out the right thing to do because of Audubon’s The Yellow Shank. He "step[s] into the middle of the picture, where he should be, with the light behind him and the dark ahead.” The changes Doug makes begin to ripple through his household. As he begins to expect more of himself, those around him subtly begin to expect more of themselves, too. The power of suggestion transforms Doug into a power of example.

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