Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Firegirl, by Tony Abbott

Title: Firegirl
Author: Tony Abbott
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2006
Pages:  147
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disability, Acceptance, Friendship
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
"...there is..." Mrs. Tracy was saying quietly, "there is something we need to know about Jessica..."
From this moment on, life is never quite the same for Tom and his seventh-grade classmates. They learn that Jessica has been in a fire and was badly burned, and will be attending St. Catherine's while getting medical treatments. Despite her horrifying appearance and the fear she evokes in him and most of the class, Tom slowly develops a tentative friendship with Jessica that changes his life. 

I loved this book!  Recently there has been a spate of novels about kids with disabilities finding varying levels of acceptance-both from themselves and from others.  Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine, The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Drunen...all of these books do an excellent job of bringing attention to the issues that children and youth with disabilities deal with on a daily basis.  Most of those books are for intermediate or middle school readers, and schools in my district have used them as part of a unit on dealing with disabilities and acceptance.  Well, Firegirl can definitely be added to the list of books perfect for teaching these important social justice concepts.  The reading level is lower than any of those other books, making it perfect for use during guided reading or literature circles for your lower readers. The readability may be easier, but the content is just an challenging, and the opportunities for discussion are just as numerous, as any of the other books I mentioned.

The book is told from the point of view of Tom, a seventh grade student at a prestigious private school in New Haven, Connecticut.  When Jessica joins their class, the other students are not sure what to make of her.  If you've ever seen a burn victim, then you have some idea of what Jessica's appearance was.  Abbott describes it in pretty vivid detail, but not gratuitously.  Tom, an inherently kind boy, feel very uncomfortable with his classmates reactions to her, and to their speculation about how she got the burns that scarred her so horribly.  He finds himself torn between doing the right thing and preserving his friendship with his best friend, who takes what seemed to me to be an irrational dislike to Jessica.   Abbott does an excellent job of showing Tom's inner turmoil, and even when he chooses compassion over peer acceptance, the book never falls into the trite, Hallmark moment sentimentality that mars so many TV movie attempts at showing these same kinds of stories.  Jessica is also a pretty realistic, complicated character.  She is not always likeable, she does not always make good choices, she is obviously scarred emotionally and not just physically by what happened to her.  The temptation with these kinds of characters is to make them saccharine, to reduce their very real struggles with tropes about inner strength and heroism, when in reality the road to recovery is long, painful, and full of dark moments.  Abbott avoids that-you feel compassion and sympathy for characters, but never pity or sappiness.

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