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Eventown – Distinguished?

Note to readers: For the sake of simulating Newbery Committee work where all members are expected to have read each book in full prior to face-to-face discussions, Heavy Medal bloggers will cite details, including major plot points and book endings. Readers always have the option of coming back to read and comment on specific post after having finished the book.


Last week’s post on our early picks generated some initial discussion over a highly suggested title, Eventown by Carey Ann Haydu. Her creation has a freshness that I appreciate – the world building of the town has just the right amount of creepiness in its perfection and control, existing on the edge of charming exteriors and a tense sense of contentment from its longtime residents. As the tale unfolds and the revelations dawn on Elodee (there are only three flavors of ice cream in rotation; there is but one song to learn to play at school; all the roses are identical, etc.), the reader’s unease expands to an almost unbearable level. Thus, the discovery of how the “uneven” emotions are taken and stored away is quite rewarding. And the conclusion of Elodee’s family choosing to retrieve their grief, along with the sweet memories of the lost loved one, is satisfying. I believe many readers feel the same way I do.

I am, however, curious to know Heavy Medal readers’ opinions on the following:

  • Is Haydu’s prose distinguished? Are there specific examples to share?
  • Is the explanation of the stripping of (and storing and playing back) the townsfolk’s memories satisfactory?
  • Is the pacing of the reveal of Lawrence’s death done skillfully?
  • Are the many moments of epiphanic wisdom convincing and organic?

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. This book frustrated me for two reasons… 1) I think it would have worked much better had Hydu started the story with Elodee’s family already in Eventown and Elodee’s memories partially gone. It would have upped the creepy factor of the book as the reader began to get a sense of things that weren’t right. It also would have negated my second frustration with the book…

    2) Lawrence’s death. There were multiple times in this first person narrative were Elodee could have and should have revealed his death to the reader but I felt it was only held back so that the author had something to reveal as a plot twist in the end. This felt too contrived. Even when Elodee is in the Welcoming Center. She details the first few stories she gives up pretty clearly then just stops and fast forwards in time to the end of her session, skipping out on the story about Lawrence. Why share a few stories with the reader but not Lawrence’s? The only reason was to keep that from the reader for a surprise. It didn’t feel natural at all. And I felt the author’s presence too much in the story because of it.

    I do think Elodee’s forgetting of him once she lets that story go, felt natural, but again, the way the narrative was set up, there’s no reason he shouldn’t have been mentioned by then. The author was intentionally hiding him from the reader and it felt cheap. And if she would have started the story IN Eventown, with Elodee already have actually forgotten him, it would have felt much more believable.

    I also have a hard time with science fiction stories like this where these weird intricate rules are laid out with no real explanation. How did Eventown work? We were never really told. I think that’s a knock on it’s world-building…

    • I love the suggestion that it should have started with her memories already partially gone. I really liked Eventown but did not feel that it was perfect because it was not quite creepy enough. This would have been a very satisfying way to deal with that problem (for me).

    • Agree! It was so obvious the big secret was her brother died, so I think it would have worked better to start with her memories gone (and her having signed up for it) or just to tell us upfront so you’d get the dramatic irony of us knowing and watching her forget. And too many questions for me about how it all worked. And why is the whole thing a secret when they think they’re doing something good and most have signed up for it? And wouldn’t there be a process to get your memories back if you decided you wanted to leave? I did like the writing though.

      • Also, there were a lot of cool things in the town, but there were inconsistencies in the world-building that are small but I found distracting. Like if there are no words in the books in the library, why do they have vocabulary tests in school and why and how do the younger kids even learn to read?

  2. I have a lot of thoughts about Eventown that I need to sort through before writing about. But I am thinking about what Mr. H was saying about Lawrence’s death being carefully withheld to be a plot twist. In my notes about the book when I read it months ago, I noted that I was very interested in finding out what young readers reaction to the reveal about Lawrence was, because as an adult reader it was obvious to me by the end of the first chapter that the family had recently lost a child, and it didn’t take much longer to deduce specifically that it was an older brother. It’s been awhile since I read the book, but based on my notes, I guess I did not see it as the information being withheld to be a “surprise” so much as Elodee very carefully choosing not to think or talk about her grief, purposefully skipping the parts of the story where she’d need to talk directly about Lawrence, but ending up giving us clues to that grief anyway because it’s so much a part of her…which sort of ties in with the overall themes of the book.

    • I feel like the dropping of subtle hints was why this reveal felt unnatural to me. The family had imposed this feeling of Lawrence’s name not being talked about but Elodee didn’t. This actually bothered her about her family. So her first person narrative felt like the perfect place to share that with a reader. Instead, she hid it from the reader. I just kind of rolled my eyes because I feel this plot device being used A LOT now. We meet a main character who has something troubling from their past and that main character is going to keep it from the reader for the entire story only to reveal to us in the end what it was they weren’t telling us in the beginning. Sometimes it’s done well. Other times it feels cheap. This felt cheap to me, because Elodee was not like the rest of her family. She wanted to remember Lawrence from the beginning.

  3. These comments are very interesting as I experienced the opposite effect when reading this book. The family needed to be in Juniper at the beginning so that we as readers could fully appreciate how they no longer fit into conventional society. Elodee’s sense of isolation needed to be established. The difference between her and her family needed to be seen as well, and we see this as they are preparing to leave Juniper.
    I loved the way the story was structured. I cannot adequately explain why, except to say that the mystery kept me wanting to read. I knew that loss had to play a major role, but I never thought about suicide as a factor. I think this air of mystery would hold young peoples’ interest. And, the point of Elodee only sharing three of her stories was essential to the plot. She remembers the unusual cake as an important event in her life and knows she must bake it. This is a link between Elodee and Lawrence without her remembering the person who inspired the idea. So, Elodee appreciates imperfection whereas her mother and sister no longer do. This fact creates tension between Elodee and Naomi. As the story deals with the theme of each sister growing into themselves, I thought Haydu did well in this regard.
    I suppose Lawrence could have been mentioned earlier, but the sense of something missing is so strong, and I thought Haydu was clever with the clues she presented: the photograph, cake memory, Naomi’s love of the rain, ETC. The author uses foreshadowing, which is an important literary device.

    As to the recordings: I loved the fact that the memories were preserved. It would have been so easy for them to have been destroyed completely. But, to have the memories stored in rooms that reflect individuals’ personalities was an interesting twist. The people in Eventown are not malevolent, at least not in their own minds. The memories are available if they are wanted. It took the concerted efforts of those who wanted change and Elodee’s holding onto some of her memories to recognize the town’s imperfections. This fact points to this story being different than typical dystopian literature. These characters, though deeply flawed, truly think they are doing what is best. But, perhaps they have second thoughts. Look at Josiah and his “forgetting” to finish Elodee’s session. The characters are more intricate than they might first appear.

    Prose Examples:
    The ending of Chapter 1 with Elodee’s session with the principal. Look at the description of the principal’s outfit and how that reflects her personality.
    The description of how Naomi loves the rain in chapter 3.
    The chapter when Elodee and her friend make the jasmin olive oil cake.
    The scene where everyone rediscovers their memories.
    The final chapter.

    This book is full of sensory detail, and I love the food symbolism.

    I know I am probably biased toward this book as I loved it so much, but I truly found it to be beautiful and worth consideration.

  4. Eventown received more than 10 readers’ suggestions, only behind New Kid and Carter Jones. I wonder if those of us who are “bothered” by the world building is reading the book as a Science Fiction which demands all mechanism to be explained and to follow watertight logic. Perhaps that’s not what Haydu set out to do. Perhaps it is an allegory, a fable, and a dreamscape: rules could be looser and scenarios are established to serve the purpose of conveying specific messages. In this case, the message of the importance of living an UNEVEN (and fuller) life of ups and downs, joy and sorrow, and happiness and tragedy is definitely delivered clearly.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Roxanne, thanks for this, because it clarifies something for me. I did read this as an allegory, but I couldn’t figure out why wanting to forget Lawrence’s death should require limited ice cream selection. I now see that the “point” or the bargain that’s made is that limiting one’s experience in one respect, even by choice, entails limiting one’s experience in other respects that one might not have signed up for. That being said, I still then think worldbuilding concerns are valid. Like Katrina said, why shouldn’t the terms of the bargain be out in the open? That would have made the thematic presentation clearer. As is, it reads to me (unlike Meredith) more like “typical dystopian literature.” I am going to invoke, not for sake of comparison, but for context, The Giver and Orphan Island—2 other books that portray seemingly happy places with forced conformity. The allegorical problem is, how can the same kind of dystopia teach such different lessons? (Don’t kill babies, don’t fight growing up, don’t forget bad things.) This suggests to me there might be something to people’s concern that plotting and setting in EVENTOWN could be more “individually distinct.” And how is it just now that I realized EVENTOWN and COYOTE SUNRISE are the same book, except COYOTE’s dystopia is far more sinister?

      • Whoa … Coyote Sunrise as Dystopian, and more sinister? Expand on that notion, please. I’m dying to know more!

        I also think that perhaps the parents are a lot more aware of the “bargain” – at least the mother is all in for it. The father did bring the outside plant, as a small disobedience. Probably didn’t know how that would have upset the entire eco system. The fact that the flower is not confiscated upon arrival signals that the townspeople, being there too long, have probably forgotten how some additional variants might affect the community and thus are more lax about certain rules. This might also explain the entire sequence for Elodee to discover the secrets of the Library, the Memory storage, etc. (Not to compare but think about what people in City of Ember know and don’t know/remember and don’t remember.) . This, to me, actually makes sense: anything happening more than 30 years ago to certain people is “ancient history.” I’m talking myself into liking Eventown more!

      • Leonard Kim says:

        I take it back. Maybe all the dystopias I mentioned: Giver, Orphan Island, EVENTOWN, COYOTE, do have the same message: bad feelings are okay, and that’s why they’re similar. But if that’s the case, then even if it works effectively as “this kind of book” as Steven says below, how much is EVENTOWN contributing to this literature, much less in the “most distinguished” way?

  5. Good point, Ms. Roxanne. I was just swept away in the story and wasn’t as concerned about the logic of the worldbuilding. I saw it as a magical realism story. The set-up reminded me a bit of the Printz-Award winning Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby. That’s a book that changed my life, and the genre of it was hard to pin down as well: fairy tale, mystery, ETC. Eventown evoked that same kind of feeling: an immersive setting with vivid imagery that brought to mind a sort of fairy tale or otherworldly feeling. I think reading it as an allegory or fable works. However, I think we as readers get too swept up in genre labels. Perhaps this is because classification by publishers seems so essential. I think of Rebecca Stead’s Newbery winning When You Reach Me, which seemed to defy genre conventions as well. It’s one of my favorite Newbery books.

  6. I can see the merit that would bring this book to the table, but for a lot of the reasons mentioned, I would have hard time be persuaded to stand behind it.

    As Meredith pointed out, there is great sensory detail, and I also thought that there were some lovely pictures painted throughout the book, and some real kid emotion, confusion and coming to understanding shown.

    I read this as allegory, not science fiction, but I still feel that the world has to work for the allegory to work, and for me, it did not. Because the world building was inconsistent, and lacking some answers, the need to blindly accept some things was too fierce, and I couldn’t get enough of a grounding for the metaphors not to feel manipulative.

    I also had the same issues as others as the reveal of the brother’s mental illness and death was used as a device, more than a character coming to a full awakening and acceptance. I wanted a little more from that than I got too. I just finished MY JASPER JUNE, where there are a lot of parallels, but felt the coming to be able to talk acknowledge the death more fleshed out, and unpacked.

    I felt that Elodee was a well developed character, but felt the development of the family members a little lacking, and a little more might of helped carry the emotional reveal at the end.

    • Agree!
      I also felt manipulated by the book– like the author was teasing us– showing us a peek of a mystery, then swiping it away– and not in a fun way

  7. I just read Cyote Sunrise and am very intrigued by the idea of it being dystopian fiction and more sinister than Eventown. Does this idea coincide with the fact that Coyote and Rodeo do not even go by their given names anymore? Also, perhaps the idea of a continuous journey, never finding a place to rest? Very intriguing idea, and I look forward to hearing your perspective.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    As in EVENTOWN, Coyote and Rodeo flee the scene of tragic family loss for a falsely idealized existence in which arbitrary rules must be conformed to. As in EVENTOWN, there is a forced forgetting of lost family members. In COYOTE, the names of the dead are not allowed to be uttered, indeed it is not even permitted to acknowledge that Rodeo is Coyote’s father. In both books, the protagonists push back on the confines of their closed, artificial society by seeking out a physical manifestation of their lost memory. The reason I think COYOTE is more “sinister” is that Rodeo, whose treatment of Coyote some readers have noted amounts to emotional abuse, is, like Big Brother, still insistently described as the best, most loving, and most-loved person.

    The problem of course is that COYOTE was not intended to be a dystopia — it’s a “feel-good” cathartic book. As such, it is problematic for me, because the characters we are supposed to root for really do have a cruelty to them that fit better in a dystopia. In the end, I rate COYOTE and EVENTOWN about level in the Newbery game.

    (I note that COYOTE does in fact do what some people wish EVENTOWN did: start already at a point of partial forgetting, and it does help the gradual something-is-rotten reveal.)

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Another “sinister” aspect is how Gemeinhart makes Coyote’s and Rodeo’s lifestyle seem idyllic and appealing, just like a good dystopia should, when it really is kind of an awful existence.

    • I agree with you re the two books’ “rating” of quality being very similar. Can’t wait to discuss that one either. I admire a lot what Gemeinhart did in creating the book and have quite a few questions regarding the overall presentation (pacing, supporting characters, etc.)

  9. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    The line between science fiction and allegory is interesting. I wonder how it works with kids, though. As an adult reader I’ll often step back and look at a book from more of a distance, and that can change my assessment of its effectiveness. I did that with CARTER JONES too, deciding that the almost magical wonderfulness of the Butler was okay, that he was meant to be a kind of Mary Poppins homage, not Bates from Downton Abbey (sorry, I don’t know many butler stories…and yes, I know Bates was really a valet, not a butler), and that his actions were a good fit for the kind of world the author created. But I sometimes wish I could be less analytical and just experience the book as a child reader would. In the case of EVENTOWN, I think the presentation of themes works very well for a child audience and that the plot, though nettlesome in some of the ways mentioned, has suspense and forward movement that also works well for younger readers who haven’t read this kind of book before.

  10. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    EVENTOWN also makes me think of THE LOST GIRL by Ursu. Though I don’t think everything in this book worked perfectly, I thought the author did an excellent job of not explaining the magical elements until she finally needed to. I don’t have the book in front of me, but my notes say that you never saw magic happening for sure until page 297. But there were subtle hints along the way and the build up, though slow in some other ways, was effective. RIVERLAND by Wilde is another good example of the challenge of weaving magic into an otherwise realistic world. The elements of “house magic” and the rules of Riverland and how both are part of the girls’ family are fascinating…but I think young readers might have to work too hard to make sense of it all. The magic is explained in more detail than it is in EVENTOWN, but that kind of makes you feel like you have to grasp it fully, which can take you out of the story.

  11. Leonard Kim says:

    I just finished THE STRANGERS by Haddix, and I think it is worth reading in relation to this discussion. (And I want to give a shout-out to Jody, whose Suggestions here have been valuable in identifying fine books that haven’t otherwise been Suggested nor gotten many starred reviews nor buzz. She suggested this book. She was the first to suggest SIMPLE ART OF FLYING. I am currently listening to another of her suggestions, WHERE THE HEART IS, and it’s very good.)

    THE STRANGERS includes dystopia but works as science fiction. The book as a whole has a strong Wrinkle in Time flavor (which had its own dystopian society in Camazotz). The overall plot structure is similar to EVENTOWN: a real world start, then weird things happen, then problems are revealed which ground and drive the book as things are discovered and escalate to a climax. Here, I think the pacing and alternation of reveals, action, and character moments are expertly done, well-meshed, and feel natural. Moreso in my opinion than EVENTOWN. And I think its kid appeal is clearer than the other books in this discussion. Should it be a Newbery contender? Maybe not, but it does help me set what the standard should be when discussing books like this.

  12. Julie Corsaro says:

    I was on the Newbery Committee that picked THE GIVER way back-in-the-day, and couldn’t help but think about it as I read EVENTOWN, particularly when it came to the use of color (love those flowers) and the importance of memory (also an issue in this year’s PET,even if EVENTOWN might feel more like an allegory). Reading it as a dystopia, I liked that the tone and much of the content with its focus on family and friendship suggested a middle grade audience. That is, until the revelations about how Elodee’s brother died, which seemed more YA to me.

    Piggybacking on Mr. H’s first comment, I found the scene in The Welcoming Center contrived, too. The elders simply forgetting to finish up Elodee’s processing seemed an easy but unbelievable way to extend the story.

    I did think the writing style was quite good. Haydu’s effective use of repetition put me in mind of Rebecca Stead. And her strong use of imagery around cooking, which has previously been mentioned, reminded me of last year’s honor book, THE NIGHT DIARY (sorry– I’ve lent out my copy of EVENTOWN and can’t cite specific examples).

    To summarize: stylish, but in need of a stronger structure to hang the story on.

  13. I agree with Julie’s comment. I actually stopped reading EVENTOWN when the adults forgot to finish Elodee’s processing. It struck me as lazy plotting and I felt like I knew exactly where the story was going anyway.

    So clearly I’m not a big fan of this book, but it raises a question about the Newbery terms that’s interesting to me. Even though we can’t compare eligible books directly to non-eligible books, are we called to look at eligible books in terms of what they contribute to the existing body of children’s literature? It seems to me you have to draw on your knowledge of children’s literature as a whole to recognize what’s “individually distinct” and what seems unoriginal and/or cliched. For example, EVENTOWN seems less distinguished to me because its major theme (as Leonard put it “bad feelings are okay”) and plot elements (the “false utopia” trope) seem borrowed from superior works of fiction. What’s it contributing to children’s literature that is distinct in its excellence?

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      To try and make a complicated issue concise, ALSC award committees generally use the CCBC guidelines, which state, “Try to compare the book with others on the discussion list, rather than other books by the same author or other books in your experience.” Given that only books published during the year of eligibility are discussed, comparisons with books not on the table are discouraged. However, I don’t think it’s explicitly stated anywhere in the Newbery Terms and Criteria, nor its expanded definitions, that committee members absolutely can not do it (though committees can certainly agree that they won’t).

      I’ve often heard ALSC members over the years remark that they can’t imagine that a similar book genre-wise or by an author with a new book under consideration wasn’t on the minds of committee members. That may be the case, but it usually isn’t part of the discussion. I think the intensity of the process (so many books, so little time) does produce a tight focus among award committee members, who, in my direct and indirect experience, take their charge seriously.

      Per Destinee’s thoughtful comment, It does seem in the larger sense that committee members can’t help but take into account their knowledge of and experience with the body of children’s literature. Committee members are asked to judge, after all. However, there may be some negotiation required for how it looks during actual award committee discussions.

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