The front cover features an open pea-pod. From one half of the pod, two peas, with a couple of eyes apiece, stare out in a perky kind of a way. In the other half, the names, JAKE + LILY; oh, right – they’re twins, like two peas in a pod. Or that’s how things are to begin with. They’d been born on a train, The California Zephyr. Every year, since they were six, they sleepwalk on the night of their birthday to the local train station, waking there excited but not anxious, safe in each other’s company. Jake once yelled ‘Stop!’, when Lily was about to run out in front of a car. No big deal, except he was at the dentist five miles away at the time and she still heard him before it was too late. They even write alternate lines of the Intro to their story, when Jake can’t help telling us he’s 11 minutes older. Then they settle for alternate chapters, a structure which allows us inside each twin’s mind in both reflection and action.
Trouble comes, and stays, in the form of a mean kid called Bump Stubbins. As Jake gets older, he’s drawn away from Lily into Bump’s gang, The Death Rays. Four boys, spending summer on their bikes, hanging out in their secret den, and making fun of ‘goobers’ – kids who are a bit different. Like newcomer to the neighbourhood, Ernest Lindop, a veritable Supergoober. The Death Rays mock him relentlessly, but since Ernie is a kind of Holy Fool, he thinks they are his new best friends. It’s cruel stuff and readers of Jake’s age will know about that kind of cruel stuff.
Just as readers of Lily’s age will know what it is to lose your best friend. Only in Lily’s case, he’s also her twin. Confused and miserable, she turns to sometime-hippy Grandpa Poppy, who’s sad himself since Grandma died. She was trying to save the redwoods at the time, but falling 200 feet after eight days perched up a tree was too much. Poppy’s a great listener, and he comes up with a bunch of solutions for Lily’s unhappiness. In the end, it’s time and chance which do the trick. Jake’s too decent a guy to go on being fooled by Bump. Lily finds a new friend and the twins realise they need to grow up separately or, rather, be together in a different way. Finally, Lily and Jake can forget those eleven minutes and agree to being equals.
Spinelli’s very good at this neighbourhood-scale plotting infused with comedy. He is especially good at the sparky idiom of the twins’ writing and dialogue. Their accounts of relationships and events seem so simple, but behind their prose Spinelli is subtle, acute and respectful. He does not dismiss the pain of Lily’s loneliness or Jake’s need to belong to a group as passing phases. This novel knows that’s not how such emotions feel to its readers.