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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Hobbs, Valerie. Tender. Foster/Farrar, 2001. 245p
ISBN 0-374-37397-3 $18.00 Gr. 6-10

Haven't we read this one before? A resentful teen, through some fluke of fortune, is forced to reconnect with a long-lost parent. The storyline-more properly reckoned as family-story subgenre than plot-has a trajectory and outcome as inexorably fixed as a fairy tale. The author's mission is simply (and dauntingly) to present fresh, believable situations that facilitate the inevitable reconciliation and to fashion characters with, well, character, worthy of our caring. In Tender, Hobbs not only fulfills but exceeds the goal, creating in the Tragers a fractured family that we'd give our eye teeth to see healthy and healed.

Gran's sudden death leaves fifteen-year-old Liv Trager with nowhere to go except California, where her estranged father makes a tenuous living diving for abalone. Sporting her customary black garb and dyed locks and packing attitude to spare, Liv is greeted at the airport by Dad's longtime girlfriend Sam, who instinctively sees through Liv's pretensions and who is prepared to love and even like her. Liv's not prepared, though, to love or like anything about the move and new relationship, and although Mark Trager is clearly ready to do his best, his best manifests itself in dour demeanor, clipped conversation, abrupt orders, and fumbling protectiveness that Liv resents. When Liv squanders her father's cash savings on a shopping splurge, Mark puts her to work as tender on his boat, responsible for overseeing the oxygen line on his diving equipment. Gradually introducing Liv to the underwater world where he feels most at home, Mark in fact recreates the nurturing parent-child relationship, in which care and guidance are demonstrated rather than spoken, that they missed during Liv's childhood ("So he pulls her around some more, sometimes stopping, poking around while she hovers above, learning to be easy on her own, the very way a child learns to let go and take her first steps. He's never far from her").

The third-person narration allows Hobbs to probe each character's mind, but she eschews omniscient meddling. Instead, we share only Liv's view of events as she warily circles those who would love her--guard up, senses heightened, jabbing to test their defenses, winded and weakened by Gran's death. She lands a couple of punches, denying her father to the police when she's escorted home from a midnight visit to the beach, slapping him with reminders of his past negligence at every opportunity. It's Sam's diagnosis of breast cancer, though, that sends Liv scampering for emotional cover and jolts her into awareness that "she's her father's daughter after all. When the going gets tough, she bails," just as he did following her mother's death fifteen years ago. Well before the dramatic boating-accident climax wherein she clings for her life to a cooler lid, though, Liv finally comprehends that she's really not cut out to be a scrapper but a tender, a support to Sam in her medical ordeal and a lifeline to the father who's as devastated by losses--real and feared--as she is.

Hobbs knows the difference between a happy ending and an easy ending, and she leaves her readers with loads of hope but no guarantees. Abalone are dwindling, Mark's competition is getting younger, and Sam, "bald as a beach ball" from chemotherapy, isn't out of the woods yet. There's finally a family here, though, loving and committed if uncertain of their collective future: "It was the beginning of waiting, and they did it the way people wait for things they can't stand to wait for: imperfectly, but with courage." (Imprint information appears on p. 60.)

-- Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
October's Bulletin cover illustration by Michael Morgenstern
from Tender 2001. Used by permission of
Foster/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.



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