Banana – written and illustrated by Zoey Abbott
Tundra Books, 2023
Let’s suppose someone you know, either a child or an adult, is so consumed with a particular object or pastime that nothing else can compete for her attention. The focus of fascination might be a cellphone, a Rubik’s cube, or even a book. In Zoey Abbott’s new picture book, the enraptured person is a young girl’s father and the object in question is a banana. The banana starts as an ordinary purchase, not from a supermarket, but from a “Banana store,” where an expert retail associate with long hair and glasses packages it up for the girl’s dad. If you are familiar with Abbott’s work, you know that quirky imagination and ability to think like a child are signature elements of her style (see my earlier review here).
Adults can strike children as scary, friendly, puzzling, ridiculous. The girl in the book has a terrific dad, who takes her to the beach, wraps her up like a burrito, and, mainly, always has time for her. Then the odd distraction comes along. The banana starts as a magical connection between them. Abbott’s pictures use each gesture and element to communicate effectively. Building a banana structure, watching multiplying bananas sail through the air, and using a larger banana as a handsaw. Father and daughter are wearing safety goggles, of course.
Then the fun stops. The banana becomes a solitary obsession, and the girl is excluded from her father’s attention. Even a game of chess takes on a sad aspect, with Dad in the foreground of the picture, and the girl reduced to a tiny perspective in the back of the room. Abbott succeeds in conveying the see-saw nature of childhood. One minute, a parent is attentive to your needs. Then, he becomes immersed in some pointless activity. Naturally, readers might see a reverse metaphor in the story, as any parent frustrated by a child’s inattentiveness will recognize. In Abbott’s world, the generations are not in contradiction; they might exchange roles.
When the distance between father and daughter begins to seem overwhelming, she takes the situation into her own hands. Once the banana has been removed from the scene, the father gets angry, but it’s nothing that a little focused meditation can’t fix. The scene shows how order has been restored to the universe. Seated back-to-back, their normal proportions are restored. The room is in order, table set, and pictures carefully composed on the wall behind them. Soon they’re back to being friends, in that companionable but reassuringly unequal way that children need.