Ah, middle school. When friendships fall apart, boys and girls start acting strangely, social codes are more complex, and teachers ratchet up the expectations.
Tom Bender’s seventh-grade year began in the normal way. He hung out with his friend Jeff, talking cars and comics, went to school, worked hard on his reading, and designed elaborate fantasies in which he rescued Courtney Zisky. But one day during the last week of September, Mrs. Tracy had an announcement to make. A new girl, Jessica Feeney would be joining the class and she, as Mrs. Tracy says, “’was burned, badly burned…she does not look like…anyone you have ever seen before…’”
Tony Abbott’s Firegirl is a sensitive, realistic portrayal of how your life can change when you least expect it and in the most surprising of ways. Told in first person narration, Abbott’s hero doesn’t fully understand why he reacts the way he does to Jessica. His first impressions are ones of horror and fear:
- “Jessica Feeney’s face, the first thing everyone looked at, was like a mask. I looked at her, then away, and then back at her. I couldn’t believe I was looking at the face of someone alive.”
When Tom holds Jessica’s hand during prayers and Jeff refuses, everything changes. Jeff lashes out at Tom, Tom is surprised and a little disgusted at Jeff’s callousness, and Jessica simply appreciates that someone treated her as someone alive.
For the short time before Jessica moves away, Tom becomes her friend and learns about her life and the fire. Even so, he fails her when he is too embarrassed to nominate her loudly enough for class president. The concluding paragraph of Firegirl shows just how much the friendship and the failure mean to Tom:
- “One thing I know. If I ever saw her again, I think I’d start saying all kinds of stuff and probably wouldn’t be able to stop. And I’d want her to talk, too. A lot. I’d want us both to talk to each other deep into the night and not stop. Mostly, I’d want to tell her thank you. And I’d try to say it loud enough for everyone to hear.”
Buy a copy of Firegirl for a Middle School or Junior High kid today. It’s a life-changing story in just 145 pages.