Henry’s story could stand on its own. My favorite character was her roommate, Yoly, who introduces Henry to Cuban American culture. Tennis superstar David adds romance and shows us the glamorous world of pro tennis. Henry’s nightmare sideline dad-coach provides comic relief. Interestingly, Maria originally intended for Tomatoes to be just Henry’s story.
It was a later decision to break the narrative in half to give Eva her own voice, or rather voices. Maria’s teenaged daughter made this excellent suggestion. Eva’s tale is more inward than Henry’s; it follows the emotional arc into mental illness. The main secondary character in Eva’s story is her horrible inner voice, who tells her she's fat and ugly. Her struggle with anorexia is heart rending due to its realism.
The triumph of Tomatoes is that anorexia does not consume the character. Eva is more than her disease; she’s a talented dancer and a good friend. It was also easier to read about her downward spiral because Henry’s sunny story balanced the darkness. Henry models a healthy attitude toward diet and exercise . . . and she looks like a Victoria Secret model. Good message!
Tomatoes would be an excellent book to share with your children or students for a discussion on body image. My beautiful 13-year-old daughter is both a dancer (shadow photos) and an athlete. She is also a healthy eater with a big appetite for young adult fiction.
My teenaged daughter's review:
Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best definitely deserves a spot on my bookshelf. There is friendship, horror, romance and humor. The book is an eye-opener, and I enjoyed the two narrators. Although their parts are drastically different, I thought they counter-parted each other very nicely. Henry’s chapters were light, fun and comical, while Eva’s were very deep, disturbing, passionate, and at times repulsive. Eva’s chapters definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, and they were very different than anything I’ve read before.
Though frightening, I thought Eva’s storyline was real. So many girls out there have eating disorders, but not many people talk about it. This book showed the horrors of anorexia and the true-to-the-bone feelings of Eva, which I thought was very fascinating, riveting and added an edge to the book. Tomatoes is a gripping story of two friends who are always there for each other through the best and the worst. It is a definite must-read.
Our Interview of Maria Padian
Author Maria Padian by Betsy Evans, her tennis teammate.What’s the story behind your title?
Maria: the title is from a T-shirt I owned when I was young. It’s a play on words, since tomato is slang for girl. So that T-shirt and yes, my title, essentially say Jersey Girls Are the Best. It’s the mantra for my main characters, two teens who feel a tad defensive about being from New Jersey.
But while the setting and the background noise of the novel is largely New Jersey, the book is not about Jersey. Henry and Eva are talented kids facing extraordinary pressures, and the novel is about battling your demons, making healthy, life-affirming choices, and taking ownership of your future.
How did you get from New Jersey to Maine?
Those woods at left are where Maria and I often meet for walks to talk about books and writing. Yep, that's what Maine looks like in early March.
How did you research anorexia and what made you write about it?
I have never struggled with an eating disorder myself; however, through high school, college and into my adult years I have known friends and family members who have struggled with eating disorders. They, along with professionals, have shared their stories and insights with me. I have been inside treatment centers and attended counseling sessions. I have wept with anguished parents who fear their daughters will die. I have been brought to my knees, watching helplessly as someone I care for disappears behind the veil of irrationality which is anorexia.
Despite all that is known about this illness and all the strides we have made in combating it, I have been bewildered by our ability to bear witness yet say nothing. Young people skip meals, become achingly thin, retreat from their friends and the rest of the world, and we say … nothing. We claim that we want to “respect their privacy.” We don’t want to “assume.” This situation, which must change, fueled my desire to tell Eva’s story.
The world of junior tennis and of pre-professional ballet in Tomatoes felt very real and detailed. What’s your background in those fields or was it researched?
I play tennis, and still play competitively, although not nearly at Henry’s level! As a result, writing the tennis scenes was easy for me. I also had an opportunity to tour the Evert Tennis Academy in Florida, and speak with a representative there about the work they do with young players. Evert makes a real commitment to helping players maintain a good balance in their lives and stay healthy.
The ballet sections took some real work, because I don’t dance and have never taken a single ballet class. I relied heavily on interviewing young dancers, reading books about ballet, combing through autobiographies of my favorite dancers, and even watching ballet how-to videos. I once tried standing en pointe in some borrowed slippers. That lasted about one excruciating second! Luckily, I’m a big ballet fan so getting up to speed on the dance sections was a real labor of love.
What was the inspiration for the Cuban American character, Yoly?
The inspiration for Yoly came from two places: first, my mother. My mom is Latina and like Yoly, when she speaks Spanish she is one person; when she speaks English she is another. It's something you've got to see to believe! My second inspiration came from visiting Calle Ocho in Miami's "Little Havana" and eating some pretty amazing Cuban food. I grew up eating my mom's arroz con pollo, but it was nothing compared to the roast pork and black beans I found on Calle Ocho. I couldn't resist putting that pork in Tomatoes!
Write what you know is emotionally true. Write from the place where you can relate to the characters and the situation. For example, I can’t dance. But I do know about performing. I was a classical pianist for many years, and as a teen actually prepared for a piano competition at New York’s Carnegie Hall. I believe that experience enabled me to write Eva’s sections of the book.
That's a yearbook photo of me at age sixteen (at left) near the age of my main characters. I had just returned from a week at the Jersey Shore . . . that's where I got those pooka beads.
Can you tell us about your next young adult novel?
It’s set in Lewiston, Maine, and the narrator is a 17-year-old boy who befriends a Somali immigrant who plays on his soccer team. Lewiston is a predominantly white, Catholic, Franco, former mill town, which has seen a huge migration of refugees from Somalia and other nations over the last decade.
This is the first time I’ve written from a male point of view, and the first time I’ve set a fictional tale in a real place, against the background of actual events. I feel tremendous pressure to get this “right,” especially because I have been so moved and inspired by the amazing people I’ve met in Lewiston, especially the teenagers. The projected publication date is fall 2012.
Tomatoes' release date: March 8, 2011. Thanks for joining us today, Maria!
More Young Adult Novels on Anorexia:
I’d also recommend two other well-written novels about eating disorders. In Just Listen (2008) by Sarah Dessen the protagonist’s sister is an anorexic model. Dessen does a great job in engaging the reluctant reader, but the eating disorder plot is secondary. Winter Girls (2010) by Laurie Halse Anderson is more grimly realistic and focused, but the protagonist is anorexia, not the girl. "I am the space between my thighs," says Lia. The haunting images of this exquisitely crafted novel terrified me. In both of these books, however, I never got a sense of the characters beyond their afflictions. Eva in Tomatoes felt more real.
Disclosure: I borrowed the Tomatoes ARC from Maria at my request. I will be buying a finished copy for us. I also reviewed Maria's debut Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress. The Roseate Spoonbill birds and Alligator photos were taken by Maria in Florida. I borrowed Wintergirls from Maria and bought Just Listen myself. No free products were received for these reviews.
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Baby Watch: congratulations to Denise and David @ The Education of a Pulp Writer on the birth of their first child! Their daughter is called Ava, which is also how you pronounce Eva, one of the MC’s of Tomatoes.