Sunday, April 01, 2007

More Literary Fiction For Kids?

When I started reading Firegirl by Tony Abbott, the only thing I knew about it was that it was written by a guy from Connecticut. I've had some of my very best reading experiences when starting a book from a position of nearly total ignorance like that.

First-person narrator Tom Bender appears a little dull in the opening pages of Firegirl, and at that point a reader can't be blamed for wondering if she'll be able to stand being with him for very long. His best friend is an obviously shallow classmate Tom clings to because he doesn't have anyone else. Even his fantasy about saving the girl he's attracted to doesn't seem all that engaging...though he does dream of doing it with the help of various small superpowers. Nothing too ambitious for this run-of-the-mill kid.

When a new classmate appears, a jaded reader might begin to worry that this is going to turn into a problem book. The new classmate is, after all, a terribly disfigured girl who is undergoing treatment at a local hospital for the burns she suffered over a large portion of her body.

But Firegirl isn't about Jessica and how she deals with her personal tragedy. No, it's about sadsack Tom and how he deals with Jessica entering his life.

This poor boy is struggling so hard to hold on to his one friend, who really is no prize. At the same time, he is overwhelmed with the desire to do the right thing by Jessica whose injuries are so horrible that his classmates are shaken by her presence.

The intensity of Tom's turmoil and Jessica's family's suffering as well as the mystery around just what happened to her elevate this story well above a traditional what-would-you-do-if-this-happened-to-you tale.

At the end of the book, Tom, himself, says that very little has happened. Externally, he's right. The plot to this book is all inside Tom. A few weeks ago while blogging about another book, I talked about the difference between commercial (above-the-surface plot) and literary (below-the-surface plot)fiction. Firegirl seems to be a very fine example of the latter.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Another sign of the literary for me? The book stays with you a long time, and not because of the plot.

I read "Firegirl" a year ago, and still remember moments quite strongly: the narrator standing outside Jessica's house, the feel of her hand when he holds it in class, etc.