A while ago, we read Wonder for our family book club. It was pretty good, but there were a few things that bothered me. It seemed saccharine and overly optimistic, ending with a standing ovation for the “ugly” kid. The author (a woman) didn’t seem to carry a preteen boy’s voice very well. And I was a little annoyed that she seemed to be advocating for a group she didn’t have connections to, making assumptions about what life must be like for a child with a birth defect.
Tony Abbott’s Firegirl corrected all of these problems, while addressing many of the same issues. The book is about Tom, a seventh-grader, and his reactions to a new girl in class, Jessica Feeney. Jessica has been horribly burned in an accident, and she’s spending a few weeks at Tom’s school while she tries some procedures at a nearby hospital. And while he’s revolted by Jessica’s “melted” appearance, he struggles when he starts to realize that his friends are treating the new girl as though she were a monster. He struggles with his own feelings, realizing that even he has a hard time looking at her. Her appearance isn’t something you just “get used to.” He wonders what she has to go through, what she’s thinking, how many of the rumors she hears, and how much they bother her.
One thing my husband pointed out is that Tony Abbott’s writing encapsulates a seventh-grade boy’s thought process fairly well. There are entire chapters of this (rather short) book that are dedicated to cars and wild adventures in which he fantasizes about saving the life of the girl he likes. There are whole paragraphs about how much his friends are getting on his nerves. And he doesn’t talk or think like a writer; at the end of the book, there’s some closure, but it’s not like all of Tom’s questions are miraculously answered, or all of the loose ends are tied up. Because this is middle school, and very seldom are all the loose ends even in sight, let alone tied up. Jessica is not miraculously the most popular girl in school by the time she leaves. Tom still doesn’t like to look at her. But he’s learned some things, and maybe so has she. We may never know, because we only get Tom’s perspective.
Firegirl has everything I loved in Wonder, and none of the things I disliked. It’s a quick, easy read – about a fourth grade reading level, give or take – and I read it in about two hours total. And during that time, it raises some questions about how we treat one another, then lets the reader find their own answers. I would recommend it to anyone, any age. ♦