Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill Alexander

Found Via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I've been reading a lot of heavy, serious books lately. Like Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, The Sweetheart of Prosper County provided some lightheartedness to break up the downer books - though this one does have a serious story at its core.

After being made fun of by the school bully at her small Texas town's No Jesus Christmas parade, Austin Gray decides that she needs to be elected as the Sweetheart of Prosper County. If she gets to wear a pretty dress and ride in the parade, no one will be able to make fun of her! Of course, in order to win the crown, she has to join the Future Farmers of America club, and raise a prize-winning farm animal. Enthusiastically supported by her best friend Maribel, and just slightly less so by her overprotective mother, Austin throws herself head first into raising a prize rooster, named Charles Dickens.

When she's not carefully attending to Charles Dickens, Austin is also carefully learning how to grow up and assert her independence under her mother's tight reign. She's been extremely protective of Austin ever since Austin's father died in a car accident one rainy Christmas Eve. Naturally Austin misses her father terribly, but she doesn't understand why his death means she has so fewer freedoms than her peers. And being kept under strict rules isn't exactly conducive to going out with Josh, the cutest boy in the FFA!

I felt there were some uneven spots in this book - the men and boys are a little underdeveloped (I never figured out why the bully was so damn MEAN to Austin - sure she's an easy target since she won't stand up for herself, but he really takes it too far), and the animal-raising plot seems resolved too early so for chapters at a time there's no mention of Charles Dickens, who is so essential to the first half of the book. However, those uneven spots don't take away from the delightful charms of Austin and her relationships with her friend Maribel and her mother. Austin and Maribel are delightfully close, even though the rural town has more than its fair share of racist rednecks who aren't afraid to throw slurs at Maribel. Austin even takes part in Maribel's quinceanera.

It's also always nice to see a functional mother/daughter relationship. Yes, Austin's mother is a bit overprotective, which Austin sometimes resents, but the two of them are also affectionate and there's obviously a deep bond there. They aren't perfect, but they don't hate each other.

Another plus: the book's subtle but ever-present portrayal of religion. A lot of YA books totally gloss over religion - if it's mentioned, the character is either fervently anti-religious, or the whole book is religiously themed. The Sweetheart of Prosper County isn't a religious book, but there are plenty of references to Austin's religion sprinkled throughout the text, mostly through her strategy of "praying the problem:" instead of asking god for a specific outcome, you just pray about what's going on and trust that it will be resolved. Also the quinceanera takes place in Maribel's catholic church, which is very different from anything Austin had experienced before. Though I'm not religious myself, it's nice to see religion acknowledged as part of a character's life.

Thread plug: Yesterday I put out a request for books with explicitly female characters - I'd still love to hear from you and your thoughts in the comments!
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