March 13, 2013

A Taste of Heaven

by Meg Tilly
Puffin / Penguin Canada
258 pp.
Ages 8-12

With the recent presentation of the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards, more Canadians will know the name of actress Meg Tilly, who won Best Actress in a Drama Series for her work in Bomb Girls, Global TV's original series about women working in a 1940's munitions factory.  Some may even recall her noteworthy performances in the highly-acclaimed movies The Big Chill (1983) and Agnes of God (1985).

But, readers of youngCanLit have had Meg Tilly on their radar more recently with the short-listing of her middle-grade novel Porcupine (Tundra, 2007) for the 2008 Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children Award.  Now Meg Tilly has come back to the youngCanLit stage with her newest book, A Taste of Heaven.

For some, A Taste of Heaven may be chocolates and candies, as the cover suggests, but everyone has their own vision of what constitutes heaven. In this "the-grass-is-always-greener" story, the town of Rosedale is delighted with the news that a TV series starring Hollywood actors Jessica Ashton and Grant Palmer will be filming there. The book's protagonist, Madison Stokes, is thrilled at the prospect, even if her five-year-old sister Gina can't appreciate it, and her mom is just too busy going to her bank job while her dad keeps looking for more than a part-time job.  A lot of the kids at school are also hyped about the filming, especially snooty Olivia who is convinced she'll get a part, since her mother runs modelling and tap classes.  But when a new girl arrives the second week of school, Olivia finds Alyssa Hawkins to be a snob, though Madison is happy to befriend her.  

In fact, Madison and Alyssa become fast friends, with Alyssa spending a lot of time at Madison's house, playing in the room she shares with Gina and enjoying helping with chores and eating with the family.  When Madison asks about visiting Alyssa at her house, Alyssa is reluctant but welcomes her new friend to the massive house with its flawlessly decorated rooms, elaborate menus and staff, including a housekeeper and driver.  Alyssa may feel imperfect in her own home but her art studio where she paints allows her the freedom to be herself.  When Madison learns that Alyssa's mom is the actor Jessica Ashton, she promises to keep her secret, even if Madison then feels more embarrassed about her own family.  Understandably so, especially after a very funny scene in which little Gina is sitting on the toilet using her sister's baseball mitt to catch her poop!

But the friendship falters when Madison becomes uncomfortable with the lies she must tell her family in order to keep her promise to Alyssa.  So, though she has been discretely helping Alyssa to learn the identity of her father, Madison is accused of wanting to tell the tabloids and of revealing Alyssa's secret to her classmates.

Having moved regularly because of her mother's profession, Alyssa is new to having and being a friend. As such, she purports to trust Madison but she is too ready to accept that Madison would deceive her to the paparazzi and the tabloids. Similarly, Alyssa has not given her own mother a chance to do the right thing with regards to sharing the identify of Alyssa's father. Given the opportunity to share or defend Alyssa, both Madison and Jessica Ashton are respectful and accommodating. But, like many young people, having taken few opportunities to develop friendships or engage her mother, Alyssa doesn't know what to expect and consequently she is most comfortable expecting disappointment. There are more than a few lessons to learn about friendship here.

But the message, that we often wish for that which another has, is explicitly depicted in A Taste of Heaven.  While Alyssa truly believes what Madison has is A Taste of Heaven, Madison revels in the wealth, celebrity and independence of Alyssa's existence.
"My crazy family ... and especially since yours is so fancy, I wanted everything to be perfect when you stayed overnight." 
"Coming here," Alyssa continued, "for me, it's like a taste of heaven." (pg. 102)
Meg Tilly shows that, while the worries of these middle-grade girls may not be life-threatening but rather anticipated stresses based in perception and humiliation, they are very real.  Madison and Alyssa each worry about others' perceptions of their wealth or lack thereof, their appearances, their acceptance by others, and their privacy.  Essentially they are concerned with possible emotional bullying that comes with rejection and dejection from those about whom they care and even those they don't. Luckily they both learn a little bit more about appreciating what they have rather than what they don't, a valuable lesson for anyone to learn or at least of which to be reminded.

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