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Word Play: Apart but not forgotten

Best friends spend the summer without each other in 'Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best'; new picture books ask readers, and fathers, to give their undivided attention.

March 20, 2011|By Sonja Bolle | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Do you think you might have, or might be, a pushy stage mother? Do you think you might have, or might be, a crazed sports dad?

"Certainly not!" say the parents.

Eye rolls from the kids.

Meet Henry and Eva, lifelong best friends who pass back and forth a trophy secretly marked "OPY" — for "Obnoxious Parent of the Year" — depending on whose parents have behaved most embarrassingly or outrageously in the race to push their children to the top. The 15-year-old heroines of Maria Padian's novel, "Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best" (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.99, ages 12 and up), have plenty of stories to compare. Henry (short for Henriette) is a tennis champion, tearing up the competition in local New Jersey tournaments. Eva is a dancer scratching her way to a place in a prestigious New York City ballet school.

Henry's overbearing father, in his zeal to protect her from rapacious managers, views every coach with suspicion. Eva's mother, convinced of her daughter's superiority, has been known to let the air out of a casting director's tires in retribution for giving a part to another dancer (and then she brags about it! Which is what won her the OPY trophy in that round).

In "Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best," Padian sketches the complicated relationships among ambitious parents, talented children and coaches looking for the rare student who has what it takes to become the next star.

Although the parents in question are, in the eyes of their daughters, complete lunatics, the girls are devoted to their sport and art. Intense work suits them. Pressure is their daily bread. Eva's passion for precision makes, for instance, any asymmetry in floor tiles as disturbing to her as imperfect lines in ballet. Henry's killer instinct gives her an unfailing ability to intimidate opponents. The girls happily put in their hours on the court and in the studio. They thank heaven for each other, for they are true best friends, and who has time to make new friends in such a competitive life?

Now, each girl is embarking on a summer program that should — if she works hard and triumphs over the competition — take her to the next level of success.

Over the summer, not only is their friendship strained by distance, but they react differently to the strains of their new regimens. Eva struggles with the classic enemy of the young dancer, body image, while Henry is challenged to stop relying on the pure aggression she has learned from her father and to develop skills of finesse that she's never appreciated.

Henry's side of the story contains more adventure and fun. She meets a Cuban roommate with her own issues as a female athlete, and boys who represent various aspects of the sports-hero-grooming machinery at work. She has quite a lovely romance and learns to trust her instincts off the court as well as on.

Eva's story develops into a portrait of anorexia. Padian's novel doesn't have the literary depth of, say, Laurie Halse Anderson's "Wintergirls," but as a cautionary tale, it does give a sense of the danger signs a teenager might notice in a friend. In particular, she introduces the therapeutic language of "ED" as the voice of the eating disorder, which was also used to great effect in Nadia Shivak's graphic novel, "Inside Out."

It's not a perfect novel; the author makes particularly frustrating choices about letting interesting moments occur off-stage. But Padian delivers, all rolled up into one, youth versions of the Natalie Portman film, "Black Swan" (without the creepy sexual riffs) and Andre Agassi's bestselling memoir, "Open," which, like this book, I recommend to any serious-minded young athlete.

PICTURE BOOKS

In what is quickly becoming a tradition of "meta-picture-books," Melanie Watt's "You're Finally Here!" (Disney Book Group: $15.99, ages 3-6) joins Mo Willems' "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" in addressing readers directly, as if the pages of the book were just a kind of window frame, and the character could lean through it and tap the reader's chest if he wasn't paying close enough attention.

"Meta-picture-books" comment on the "bookness" of the book in the reader's hands, as Lane Smith did in "It's a Book." They use a conversational form of address, seemingly unhindered by the medium of pages, fresh and sassy and ready to talk to you, buddy, even after sitting closed on a dusty shelf for…how long did you leave me there?

The bunny of "You're Finally Here!" rejoices when the reader opens the book: "Hooray! You're here!" Then he complains about how long it took the reader to get there. He apologizes for complaining ("that was awkward") and begins again. He's quite a volatile bunny, happy to see us, the readers, and also angry at not having our undivided attention, growing smaller or larger on the page, depending on how "in-your-face" his vociferousness is.

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