Friday, July 20, 2012

2013 Contenders: Prairie Evers, by Ellen Airgood

Sometimes, the differences between a book we enjoy and one that we don't can be so subtle that they're hard to identify. We know what we like and dislike, but trying to explain it seems more than a little difficult.

Prairie Evers is a book that made me ponder this fact. I liked it, but why? Aren't there criticisms that could be leveled at it? And in fact, aren't some of them the same criticisms that I myself aimed at Okay For Now, one of last year's most talked-about books? (Note: It's hard for me to talk about Prairie Evers without spoilers, so I'm not even going to try to avoid them here.)

Much as in Okay For Now, there's a disjunction between the first part of the book and the second. For the first half of Prairie Evers, it's a gentle New Kid In Town kind of novel, in which the titular protagonist's problems are things such as Grammy moving away, starting school for the first time, and making friends. As such, it's a surprise when the second part of the book turns out to focus on child neglect, domestic violence, and justifiable homicide. The sunniness of the ending is fitting given the first part of the book, but one could question whether or not it flows naturally from the second part.

I was frustrated by the way that Okay For Now seemed to change its own rules, going from realistic to decidedly unrealistic. But Prairie Evers has some of that as well. Although it's basically realistic fiction, I had a hard time understanding how Child Protective Services didn't become involved with Prairie's friend Ivy's family, and a tough time believing that Ivy's mom would just let her go live with Prairie; these are things that other folks have brought up on Goodreads.

So what's the difference? Why did I enjoy Prairie Evers and find Okay For Now tough going? One reason may be that Prairie Evers does limit its miracles; no one here has a wildly successful premiere of a Broadway show that's attended by their personal hero. Another reason is that, although Prairie learns about friendship and seeing things through other people's eyes, her lessons aren't all about the Power of Art, and though she does visit the library, she doesn't end up sounding like a library PSA. Those are personal pet peeves of mine, and where Okay For Now pushed those buttons, Prairie Evers didn't.

On a less comparative note, I enjoyed Airgood's writing, and found Prairie a believable and likable protagonist. I was homeschooled as a kid too, and Prairie's description of what it was like to interact with other kids upon first going to public school rang true to me. The descriptions of chicken raising also felt real and vital. Although she's had success with adult fiction, this is Airgood's first children's novel, and I hope she writes more of them.

So what of the Newbery? I don't see it happening; there are too many other competitive titles, and even if Prairie Evers is less problematic than Okay For Now, Okay For Now was shut out of the 2012 awards in a much weaker field. The committees are different, and it's a new year, but I still don't think we'll see Prairie Evers on Newbery Day. It's a book I enjoyed, however, and I look forward to more of Airgood's work.

Publication in August 2012 from Nancy Paulsen / Penguin

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