Tony Abbott’s quietly powerful new novel, Firegirl, draws the reader in from the very first sentence because of what it doesn’t say. When the narrator, Tom Bender, announces that the whole Jessica Feeney thing wasn’t a big deal, we immediately realize that it was a very big deal indeed, especially for Tom. We find out why in short order, for Jessica is a survivor of a tragedy; she has been horribly burned, and her appearance is both frightening and fascinating to the seventh-graders at St. Catherine’s school.
Jessica’s arrival in Mrs. Tracy’s classroom is a pivotal moment for Tom, who is given to flights of fancy over a girl named Courtney, loves his superhero comics, and dreams of riding in the Ford Cobra that belongs to his buddy Jeff’s uncle. When he meets Jessica, however, Tom’s perspective begins to change. He recognizes that Jessica’s arrival in his class could be a great experience for all, but events take a sad and all-too-realistic turn.
Firegirl is a departure for Abbott, best known for the popular Secrets of Droon fantasy series. Here, through Tom’s marvelously understated voice, he presents a realistic story of middle schoolers struggling to accept a disfigured girl. Tom’s sympathy enables him to overcome the cruel speculation of his classmates to find out what really happened to the reclusive Jessica, and it affects him in ways that he doesn’t anticipate. His relationships with those around him change; he sees his best friend Jeff in a different light, and his crush Courtney sees him differently, as well, as a result of Jessica’s presence. Jessica herself changes through Tom’s halting efforts to understand her.
Understated, beautifully written and deeply moving, Firegirl is a book that young readers will treasure for its ability to illuminate the elements of the human spirit that we all have in common.