Fuse #8

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Review of the Day: Firegirl

From the man who brought you "The Chronicles of Droon" comes ... HEY! Come back! Yes, I know, it sounds bad but bear with me here. This is a bit of a surprise.

When you are a children’s librarian, like myself, you grow to stereotype certain authors without thought. For example, if you had walked up to me not too long ago and asked me to describe author Tony Abbott, I would’ve rambled off some well meaning dribble about the man’s overwhelmingly successful, “Chronicles of Droon” series. “Droon” synthesizes everything I dislike about early chapter series fiction. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I was skeptical when I heard that “Firegirl” was written by the same guy. My colleagues and I are currently in the process of reading all the best children’s books of 2006, so it came as a shock to me when two of them started crooning in unison over Abbott’s latest effort. In a fit of pique (not to mention a sort of I’ll-show-them mentality) I volunteered to read the book next. I think my intention was to read it, hate it, and show everyone that Abbott was just a two-bit hack without a drop of writing credibility. Then I actually sat down and read “Firegirl”. And to my shock I found it to be a dignified, touching, and remarkably SMART little work of fiction. Little, Brown and Company took a chance on seeing if Abbott had the writing chops to win over skeptics like myself. Their gamble will pay them back in spades.

The book only covers a couple of weeks, and as Tom himself says right from the start, “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”. And it all happened when Jessica Feeney came to his class. Until she came Tom was a very regular seventh grader. He’s a little plump, obsessed over a rare car called a Cobra, and daydreams regularly about saving the life of the girl of his dreams, Courtney. Then Jessica comes to his class. Caught in a fire a couple years ago, Jessica suffers from severe burning over her entire body. Tom is just as disgusted by Jessica’s appearance as everyone else in his class, but he’s also completely fascinated. Slowly he gets to know her better than anyone else, and in turn incurs the wrath of his friend Jeff. By the end of the book Jessica has moved to another town and Tom is a person completely and utterly different from having known her for the brief period he did.

Okay, I summed it up poorly. It doesn’t sound like a book you’d want to read, does it? What’s remarkable is that it is, though. It’s amazing. For example, at one point Tom and Jessica are having their first conversation and Tom starts talking about superpowers. He’s always liked to daydream that he had, what he likes to call, “dumb powers”. Something like an indestructible finger or legs of snow or the ability to roll uphill. The kids then have a great conversation about how many powers a person would actually need and how the best power could be one that “nobody else wants”. It’s a small scene and the writing in it is so beautiful and succinct that kids can read this conversation as it happens and then read between the lines as well.

Here’s what Abbott could have done with this book but didn’t. He could’ve ended it with some schmaltzy finale where beautiful Courtney starts dating Tom cause she knows he’s a nice guy. He could’ve filled the book with cheap platitudes about looking past a person’s skin and finding out who they really are. In short, he could’ve written a book that just reeked of didacticism or cheap emotional shots. Instead, as an author Abbott never takes the easy route out of a scene. And by saying this I do not want to be mistaken for saying that the book doesn’t have any emotion. One of the last scenes in this book involves a stuffed frog and a moving van and if you don’t find your breath catching in your throat when you read it then you have no soul.

By the way, I’ve been staring at the cover of this book for quite some time and I only just now understood that the image presented there is a scene in the book. Oh yeah. I’m quick. You know, the book’s only about 145 pages. It’s not very long and it’s not a hard read at all. Reluctant boy readers who’ve grown to enjoy books through series like “The Chronicles of Droon” may well find themselves drawn into Abbott’s newest subtlest tale. Maybe that’s Abbott’s super-power. It doesn’t matter if he’s writing about three kids and a staircase of rainbows or a tale of a boy and a girl at a Catholic school. Whatever he writes is infinitely readable. And that’s a power more than one author would kill to get their hands on.

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