"It wasn't much, really, the whole Jessica Feeney thing. If you look at it, nothing much happened. She was a girl who came into my class after the beginning of the year and was only there for a couple of weeks or so. Stuff did get a little crazy for a while, but it didn't last long, and I think it was mostly in my head anyway. Then she wasn't there anymore"
So begins the winning narrative of Firegirl. The story is told by Tom, an introverted, pudgy seventh grader at St. Catherine's. Usually, Tom hangs out with his caustic friend, Jeff, who, after his parents' nasty divorce, isn't such a nice person right now. Tom revels in his ongoing, vivid daydreams of driving a fat red Cobra and rescuing popular, pretty classmate, Courtney with his imagined superpowers. He has such a crush on her. He envisions himself as a superhero with dumb little powers: he can spin on one foot, has a hand made of glue, can roll uphill. And, in each scenario, in his mind's eye, he rescues Courtney. In real life, she's never noticed him, of course.
Then Mrs. Tracey, his seventh grade teacher, announces that a new girl is joining the class. Jessica Feeney, she tells them, was badly burned in a fire, and she'll be going for treatments at the hospital in New Haven. "She does not look like . . . anyone you have seen before. . . . But I know you will treat her as good children should."
Jessica's face is scary and disfigured. It looks like a mask. It's horrible. The kids in the class aren't actually mean to her face-they just don't speak with her, really. Except for Tom. When a little photo falls from her notebook, he picks it up. "Who's this?" he asks. "It's my sister, Anne," she says. "She's really cute. Does she go to this school?" the other kids want to know. Jessica says, simply, "She died."
The rumors begin to fly. Maybe the fire is all Jessica's fault. Maybe she even set the fire that killed her sister, which would make her a murderer. Their vicious talk makes Tom feel sick. (You will deduce, before Tom finds out, that there is no sister. The photograph is of Jessica before the fire.) Tom talks with Jessica and treats her like a person when no one else will, even when Jeff and others in class are spreading hateful lies about her. When she's absent from school, he brings her homework to her house, and he even makes her laugh. These are little things. But sometimes those little things are bigger than you think. When Tom has the chance to do the right thing, he tries, even if he's not perfect. Still, the three weeks that he gets to know Jessica change his life a little bit. We talk about doing acts of kindness, how one person can make a difference, and here it is in concrete terms-one insecure boy, not popular, not "out there", as his mom wants him to be, but he does, in his own fumbling way, something small, and it makes a difference.
Tony Abbott, author of the popular easy-to-read fantasy series, "The Chronicles of Droon," may surprise you with his spare, moving, slice-of-life story about doing the right thing. Tom may remind you of Jerry Spinelli characters like Palmer LaRue in Wringer or Donald Zinkoff in Loser--characters who act morally when others around them do not. Readers will think about Tom's caustic, sarcastic, insensitive, and angry friend, Jeff, and why he acts this way, and perhaps rethink the story from Jeff's point of view. What about Jessica? Certainly, they will empathize with Jessica's feelings, too, and will live this story in their heads for some time.
Reviewed by : JF.
Themes : FRIENDSHIP. SCHOOLS.
CRITICS HAVE SAID
- Easy to read yet hard to forget.
School Library Journal
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