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Janet Tashjian (1956-) - Sidelights

review tru larry gospel

Novelist Janet Tashjian once commented: "I was a journalism major in college, but when I graduated, I took a detour into sales and marketing. After spending fifteen years selling software and computers, managing sales forces, and running training classes, I decided life was too short to spend another minute doing anything but what I really wanted to do, which was write. So I quit my job, bought a dozen spiral-bound notebooks and a pack of pens, and started writing.

"Eventually, I took some writing workshops, then found my way to the Masters in Fine Arts Program at Emerson College. Jack Gantos—Rotten Ralph, Jack's Black Book—taught children's literature and writing there. On the first day of class, he told detailed stories of the neighborhoods he grew up in, his friends, teachers, etc. He remembered everything. (Of course, I found out later, he'd been keeping a diary since second grade.) I couldn't remember that much about growing up, but making stuff up seemed like more fun anyway. That night, I drove home and came up with the idea that would become Tru Confessions—a novel that explored what it would have been like for me to grow up with a special needs sibling the way my husband did.

"I wrote the book as a series-type mystery with Trudy and Eddie solving a local crime. I finished one, then wrote another. I sent them around to publishers and agents with no luck. (Care to see a huge folder of rejections?) One night about ten o'clock, I was sitting with my infant son when I just started playing around on the computer. Trudy started talking to me, but not the Trudy I had spent all that time writing about. A new voice emerged, and she said she most certainly did not want to solve mysteries; she wanted her own television show, thank you very much. I wrote the first chapter that night and finished the book a few months later. Soon afterward, I got a great agent who sold Tru Confessions to Henry Holt."

Like its author, the story's heroine, Trudy, attempts resolutely to fulfill her dreams. Readers get to know Tru by perusing a print-out of her computer journal. Complete with humorous headings and computer-penned pictures, the diary reveals Tru's thoughts and feelings as she struggles to realize her aspirations: to create her own TV show and to "cure" her developmentally delayed brother, Eddie. Tru's two dreams merge when she enters a local cable television contest and is inspired to produce a documentary about Eddie. Janice M. Del Negro noted in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Tru begins her pursuit with "intense adolescent desires and youthful determination to just not admit defeat," but grows to have a more realistic understanding of the permanence of Eddie's disability, while keeping her sense of optimism about the future. To Five Owls reviewer Cathryn M. Mercier, Tru's voice was one of the strong points of the book: it has "an immediacy and lack of self-censorship that textures the entire book," she commented. A Publishers Weekly critic remarked, "Middle graders will laugh their way through Tru's poignant and clever take on everyday life; even the most reluctant of readers may tell their friends about this one." In April of 2002, the Disney Channel premiered a television film version of Tru Confessions, to much critical acclaim.

"The easy-reader, Marty Frye, Private Eye, came about because my friend's son used to laugh when I made up rhymes for him," Tashjian once commented. "I've always loved mysteries, so I made Marty a poet detective." Tashjian's seven-year-old detective actually rhymes his way through each of his mysteries. Jane Claes, writing in School Library Journal, felt that "this briskly paced, action-packed title will serve those readers making the leap from picture to chapter books."

From easy readers, Tashjian moved back to the middle grade novel with Multiple Choice, a story of a perfectionist and worrier. Monica Devon is the type of girl to transfer Styrofoam beads from one bean bag chair to the next for proper balance. So meticulous is she that she finally develops a game, Multiple Choice, to divert her ever-tidy mind, in which she makes up tasks for herself and then creates four different means of accomplishing them. Such obsessive-compulsive behavior leads to near tragedy, and only then do her parents and teachers see the warning signs. "Tashjian's story is as absorbing and cleverly constructed as a challenging word puzzle," wrote Jennifer M. Brabander in a Horn Book review. Brabander concluded, "Readers with obsessive tendencies will especially empathize, but all adolescents can appreciate the book's basic message—that it's okay to choose to be yourself." In a Booklist review, Shelle Rosenfeld felt that "Tashjian's conversational prose, eye for detail, and quirky humor communicate Monica's inner difficulties and loneliness, and the snowballing events that ultimately lead to positive changes." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that "this energetic, enjoyable problem novel is a must-read for wordsmiths."

Tashjian has also turned her hand to young adult novels with The Gospel According to Larry. The book chronicles the rise of a Web site creator to near messiah status on the Internet. Josh Swensen is not a typical teen: he despises the consumerism of America and uses his own Web site to discuss his opinions. His URL, thegospelaccordingtolarry.com, becomes his private journal to rant against consumerism and America's fixation on celebrities. Soon, however, Josh finds himself thrust into the unlikely role of celebrity himself when his site begins to get thousands of hits a day. Josh wants to keep his identity a secret, even from the girl he has a crush on. This reluctant friend, Beth, never shows a spark of interest in Josh, but "Larry" is another matter. As the Josh/Larry movement grows, rock festivals celebrate Larry's message. Soon, however, Josh is outed by one of his fans, and celebrity life becomes overwhelming. Josh despairs when his most cherished beliefs are compromised.

"Tashjian does something very fresh here which will hit teens at a visceral level," wrote Ilene Cooper in a Booklist review of The Gospel According to Larry. "She takes the natural idealism young people feel, personalizes it in the character of Josh/Larry, and shows that idealism transformed by unintended consequences." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews also had high praise for The Gospel: "Tashjian's inventive story is a thrilling read, fast-paced with much fast food for thought about our consumer-oriented pop culture.… The voice is clear, the ending satisfying." And Francisca Goldsmith, reviewing the novel in School Library Journal, felt that Tashjian's "gift for portraying bright adolescents with insight and humor reaches near perfection here."

Fault Line is another young adult novel with a message, this time about dating violence. Becky is a high school senior who has enjoyed some success as a stand-up comic. Happy and confident, Becky comes from a supportive, affluent family, and in her, as Jennifer M. Brabander noted in Horn Book, "Tashjian shatters any stereotypes young readers may have about people in abusive relationships." Through her acts at improv clubs Becky meets Kip, another aspiring stand-up comic. The high school senior, who writes his routines on paper towels, seems like a perfect partner for Becky, and the two quickly become inseparable. In fact, Becky's mother and her best friend worry that they are a bit too inseparable, and it soon becomes clear that Becky's relationship with Kip is not entirely healthy. Kip becomes more and more controlling of Becky's daily life, and eventually begins abusing her. Through excerpts from Kip's diary, we learn that Kip was formerly abused by his father and that, although he does not want to hurt Becky, he does not know how to stop. "Readers will appreciate that Kip isn't completely demonized," thought a Publishers Weekly critic, while Paula Rorhlick noted in a review for Kliatt, Tashjian "succeeds in conveying what makes Kip initially attractive to Becky as well as his genuine anguish over his actions."

"I write every day, some days more than others," Tashjian once commented. "I try to get in a few turbo days a week. Writing is only part of the process, though. I spend a lot of time rewriting, trying to polish each chapter, each scene, each sentence. I have several things going on at the same time—the first draft of a novel, a book in the final stages of editing, the outline for a screenplay, plus lots of ideas just waiting for me to get to them. Even when I'm not working, there's always something going on in my head, itching to get down on paper.

"When students ask me for advice I always say the same thing—'Spend your life doing something you love.' Then act like what you're doing is the most important, sacred thing in the world, because it is. Find a teacher, a mentor, a group of people who want to improve their skills, too. Then practice, practice, practice. Devote yourself to your craft, and you will be greatly rewarded. As the comedy writer Larry Gelbart said, 'The meaning of life is beyond me. The best I can do is deal with it one word at a time.' Amen."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 1 and 15, 1998, pp. 816-817; June 1, 1999, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Multiple Choice, p. 1816; November 1, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of The Gospel According to Larry, p. 471; January 1, 2002, review of The Gospel According to Larry, p. 766; September 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of Fault Line, pp. 115-116.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1998, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Tru Confessions, p. 180.

Five Owls, January-February, 1998, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Tru Confessions.

Hollywood Reporter, April 5, 2002, Marilyn Moss, review of Tru Confessions (television movie), pp. 10-11.

Horn Book, July-August, 1999, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Multiple Choice, p. 474; January-February, 2002, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Gospel According to Larry, pp. 84-85; September-October, 2003, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Fault Line, pp. 620-621.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, April, 2002, Vashti Kenway, review of The Gospel According to Larry, pp. 662-663.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1997, p. 1538; October 15, 2001, review of The Gospel According to Larry, p. 1494; August 15, 2003, review of Fault Line, p. 1080.

Kliatt, July, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Gospel According to Larry, p. 27; September, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of Fault Line, pp. 13-14.

Publishers Weekly, October 20, 1997, review of Tru Confessions, p. 77; March, 1999, p. 106; June 7, 1999, review of Multiple Choice, p. 84; December 3, 2001, review of The Gospel According to Larry, p. 61; September 1, 2003, review of Fault Line, p. 90.

Reading Today, August, 2000, Lynne T. Burke, review of Tru Confessions, p. 32.

School Library Journal, December, 1997, Patricia A. Dollisch, review of Tru Confessions, pp. 131-132; December, 1998, Jane Claes, review of Marty Frye, Private Eye, pp. 93-94; September, 1999, pp. 228-229; October, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of The Gospel According to Larry, pp. 172-173.

Stone Soup, July, 2000, p. 10; October, 2003, Susan Riley, review of Fault Line, p. 180.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1997, Katie O'Dell Madison, review of Tru Confessions, p. 322.

ONLINE

Janet Tashjian Web Site, http://www.janettashjian.com/ (April 8, 2004).

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