“Firegirl” by Tony Abbott

30 Nov


This slight, serious novel packs quite a punch. It reminded me a bit of Jerry Spinelli's "Stargirl," in that it told the story of an outsider who attends a school for a short period of time and has a huge, unexpected, and bittersweet impact on one student's life.

In "Firegirl," Tom is a Catholic middle school student in New Haven. Since Mrs. Tracy’s class at St. Catherine’s is small, Tom knows all his fellow students pretty well. However, only one of these students is his actual friend, a troubled, sort of manic boy named Jeff. Tom spends much of his time devising outlandish superhero fantasies. In these dreams, Tom rescues his beautiful, popular classmate, Courtney, using such off-the-wall talents (what he calls “small powers”) as an indestructible finger or high-pitched whistling. As Tom says, small powers are better tools because they are like a secret identity, allowing an otherwise lame or useless guy to do the most incredible things.

Near the end of September, Jessica Feeney becomes a student in Tom’s class, sitting right next to him. Although the class has been warned that Jessica is a burn victim, Tom and his classmates are completely unprepared for her appearance. Jessica’s face is horribly scarred and misshapen, her hair has mostly fallen out, her rough skin is patchy shades of pink and white, her hands are gnarled, and she must wear thick stockings to protect her legs. Tom’s first impulse upon meeting Jessica is to run or scream; after that, he tries to endure her presence by averting his eyes.

Because she is still receiving extensive treatments for her burns, Jessica often misses school. One day, Tom, her neighbor, is asked by Mrs. Tracy to hand deliver Jessica’s assignments. After tons of vicious rumors have swirled around the classroom about Jessica — she started the fire intentionally, she killed her sister, she’s on the run from the police, etc. — Tom feels both ashamed and afraid upon entering Jessica's condo. Although he is uncomfortable for much of the visit, he is surprised by how well he and Jessica get along. In fact, he even shares with her his hidden fondness for superheroes with small powers. Even better? She understands.

Later, during a pivotal moment in a classroom election, Tom is horrified to find himself not standing up for Jessica in the way he had hoped. What follows is a somewhat sad but honest resolution to a story of learning how to find courage, trust yourself, and, ultimately, grow up. When I say that, though, I mean these changes take place in a small, realistic way, which makes the book all the more compelling.

This is a short, extremely easy-to-read story that is truthful, emotionally gripping, and rather sweet and hopeful in a way. I think it's a tremendous choice for middle school students looking for a serious book to read.

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Posted by on November 30, 2007 in Uncategorized


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