Monday, March 11, 2013

Recently, I received an email and this picture from a newly formed book group that had chosen Firegirl as their first book. I am touched and honored. 

It's a humbling thing to think of people reading the story. It's a personal story, in that it was inspired by something that happened when I was in 7th grade. There was a girl like Jessica, a friend like Jeff, a class election, a Cobra, all of that. The story, when I wrote it, quickly became its own, and the original incidents were magnified and enlarged and many new things imagined and added. 

I think, for me, one of the things I found in writing it was that it was a sort of a do-over for me, a second chance, in the writing itself, to have things come out differently, better. The tiny things, the little powers, those are what make the big changes, I think. And we all have it in ourselves to do small things. We're so often afraid or embarrassed to "get out there" and do something. Once you do something kind, it may prove to have been less awkward and painful than we thought. It's a lesson that we forget and that doesn't get easier to do.

It's sometimes hard to hear readers talk about Jeff. He's definitely a character who is mostly negative, but who is, finally, an agent of change in both Jessica and Tom. Some readers want to yell at him. Readers sometimes ask if there is another story about Tom and Jessica, readers wanting to know what happens next. As a matter of fact, I have (slowly) been sketching out a companion book, but I was fairly startled to discover that the story revolves this time around Jeff. He's fallen on harder times than in Firegirl, and it's a story about some kind of connection between him and Tom, who had dropped him at the end of Firegirl. Anyway, I suppose that's beside the point. 

I hope the discussion was strong and fiery. No one's thoughts are unhelpful. Everyone's input is part of the great conversation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"I asked myself: Who would I behave like?"

I am continually humbled by readers who write to express their appreciation of my book, Firegirl. This beautifully written letter has touched my heart in a very special way. Thank you, Courtney. 

Dear Tony Abbott,

I can count on one hand all of the books that have impacted my life and your book, Firegirl, is one of them.  I read it when I was in the fourth grade and it has stuck with me ever since.  Your story is so powerful and moving, it made me stop and ask some hard questions about my life.  It taught me life-long lessons that I will never forget.

The first lesson I learned from your book is how I need to treat others despite any differences between us.  

Everyone in Tom’s class immediately decided they didn’t want anything to do with Jessica because of her burned body and face.  I couldn’t fathom why Jessica got up every day and went to school; if I were in her position, I wouldn’t want to move from my bed.  I admired her bravery during the whole book.  Throughout the whole book I felt all of Jessica’s feelings.  I felt so hurt by what the other kids were saying about her behind her back.  One of the worst instances was during the prayer time at school and Jeff wouldn’t hold hands with her because they were burned and scarred.  I felt uplifted, though, when Tom reached out and took  Jessica’s hand.  I was so excited when Tom brought Jessica her homework. 

I was almost finished with your book when I had an ah ha moment.  I asked myself: Who would I behave like? I came to the sad realization that I would most likely behave like the rest of Tom’s class in that situation.  I might not go out of my way to be rude to Jessica, like Jeff, but I probably wouldn’t befriend her either. I might pretend not to notice her and only talk to her when absolutely necessary.  That thought stung like salt in an open wound, I was very disappointed with myself.  It’s not fair for them to be treated rudely over something they have absolutely no control over.   
I made a pact right then and there, to try and befriend anyone, even if they have physical or mental challenges or look different.

There are some people in wheelchairs at my school and a girl who is mentally challenged.  I never paid much attention until I had my ah ha moment and made that pact with myself.  One of my good friends knew the challenged girl, Megan, and I asked her to introduce us.  Now Megan and I are great friends and she always gives me a big hug when we see each other.  She is very sweet and compassionate; I value my friendship with her very much.  

We’ve been friends for a few years now, all because I read your book.

The second lesson I learned was to choose my friends carefully.  Jeff and Rich were not understanding of Tom.  Throughout the whole book I kept thinking that if Tom would have chosen better friends then his choice to befriend Jessica would not have caused him so much grief.  Tom didn’t feel as if he could trust Jeff or Rich, and that is what friendship is all about.  

Through Tom’s mistake in choosing his friends I came to realize what I want in a good friend.  

I asked myself another question: Do I have any friends like Jeff or Rich?  Anyone that I can’t trust?  Any friends that put me down?  I’m sad to say that I did.  I had a few friends that were always trying to fight me, call me out on my mistakes and did not respect my decisions. 

After I finished your book, I started choosing new friends to hang out with, people who I felt comfortable around.  To this day I am still very close with them.  I found that my life was less stressful when I stopped hanging around my old friends.  You should be around people who uplift you, not people who put you down, like Jeff and Rich.  You need trust, compassion, and an understanding of each other so you feel comfortable showing your true colors. 
Mr. Abbott, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing the book Firegirl. It made me take a step back and ask some hard questions that changed my life.  I know what qualities I want in a friend and I know I need to be less judgmental of people with disabilities.  I am only 13, but I have read what seems like thousands of books and they have all pretty much blurred together.  I picked up Firegirl thinking it would be just another bland story, one where I could guess the ending on page 5, but it turned out to be much, much more.

Sincerely, Courtney, November 2012

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An excerpt from a recent letter I found very moving:

Dear Mr. Abbott,

I am a fifth grade teacher at a Catholic school in Indiana, and my students have just finished reading your book, Firegirl. I was so impressed by the powerful themes that I decided to teach it during religion class, connecting it to human dignity.

God bless,

Sister Elizabeth Marie, O.P.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reviews of Firegirl 

"Abbott, best known for several series for younger readers, creates in his first novel for young adults an affecting story about a middle school boy and his relationship with the new girl in his class. The cover, title, and premise of an outsider changing the life of a teen boy are reminiscent of Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl (Knopf, 2000/VOYA October 2000), but that is where the similarity ends. Abbott's heroine is outcast by her severe disfigurement and not choice. Tom and his classmates do not know how to react to Jessica, but when circumstances force Tom to visit her at home, his perception of her-and of his classmates-is radically altered. There is no simple ending to this story of how people respond when unimaginable tragedy strikes. Abbott proves that he is no mere series hack with this short but powerfully moving achievement. His masterful use of description evokes the depth of Jessica's suffering. A scene in the beginning where Tom and his friend burn a toy car juxtaposes hauntingly with the circumstances of the girl's gruesome accident. The complex relationship she has with her mother, who witnessed her daughter's transition from gifted beauty to shunned outsider but was unable to rescue her, is crystallized in one short paragraph involving a stuffed frog. Tom is, of course, changed forever by his brief friendship with Jessica, and readers will be too." --VOYA

"Tom, a seventh grader, tells about the arrival of Jessica, a new student who was badly burned in a fire and is attending St. Catherine's while she gets treatments at a local hospital. The students in Tom's class are afraid of her because of her appearance but little by little he develops a friendship with her that changes his life. Through realistic settings and dialogue, and believable characters, readers will be able to relate to the social dynamics of these adolescents who are trying to handle a difficult situation. The students who shy away from Jessica are at a loss as to what to say. Tom begins to look beyond her exterior and realizes that his life will not be the same after she leaves, just three weeks later. The theme of acceptance is presented in a touching story of friendship that is easy to read yet hard to forget." --Denise Moore, O'Gorman Junior High School, Sioux Falls, SD, School Library Journal, July 1, 2006.

"Describing his encounters with Jessica Feeney, seventh-grader Tom Bender reflects, 'On the outside it doesn't look like very much happened. A burned girl was in my class for a while. Once I brought her some homework. Then she was gone.' The remainder of Firegirl considers the way outside appearances fail to portray the real story. Tom is overweight and unnoticed. Jessica Feeney, however, is impossible to ignore; a tragic fire has left horrible burns all over her body. The students at St. Catherine's avoid her, and they spread wild gossip about her. Tom's friend Jeff refuses to hold her hand during prayers. Yet Tom finds that from certain angles, Jessica almost looks like a regular girl, and by supporting her, however tentatively, he sacrifices everything he thought he wanted. In this poignant story, readers will recognize the insecurities of junior high and discover that even by doing small acts of kindness people stand to gain more than they lose." --Nancy Kim, Booklist

"As seventh grade begins, Tom is comfortable with his daily routine of admiring classmate Courtney from across the room, hanging out with his friend Jeff, and generally avoiding attention. Even in his action-packed daydreams, he only allows himself small superpowers. Then, Jessica joins his class. Scars from severe burns make her an object of revulsion and speculation from the other students. Tom is the only person who gets to know her, and he is surprised by the way his life changes after the simple act of talking to Jessica. A touching coming-of-age tale, with clean yet realistic dialogue, vivid characters, and excellent pacing." --Beth Gallego, YA Librarian, Valley Plaza, LAPL in YOUNG ADULT REVIEWERS OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, Recommended Titles for Young Adults, March, April, May 2006 Vol. 44 Number 2.

"Tom Bender's homeroom teacher at St. Catherine's School tries to prepare him and his fellow classmates for the addition of a special student. No amount of explanation can prepare them for the shocking appearance of Jessica Feeney, a burn victim who has moved to their town to receive special medical attention. Her face looks like a mask, her hands and arms are disfigured, and thick stockings cover her burned legs. Most of the children in the class can't even bring themselves to look at her, much less talk to her. The teacher seats Jessica between Tom and his best friend Jeff. While Jeff slides his desk far away from Jessica, Tom does his best to act normally around her even though inside he's terrified. Before Jessica entered Tom's class, his biggest concerns in life were trying to impress Courtney Zisky and getting to take a ride in Jeff's uncle's Cobra. Jeff's homeroom class learned that they will have a class election for President just minutes before Jessica's arrival. Through the election process the reader learns more about the students in Tom's class. Tom has no intention of running for President, but he plans to nominate Courtney to get her attention. Of course no one is thinking about nominating Jessica. Shortly after Jessica's arrival, rumors begin to circulate about how she was burned in a fire. The rumors get wilder and more far-fetched every day. Tom learns the truth about Jessica when the teacher asks him to deliver homework to her one day after school. He begins a tentative friendship with her that changes his outlook on life. This powerful, emotional novel told in first person will touch readers' hearts. Some situations come only once in a person's lifetime, but they are enough to change that individual forever. Don't miss the opportunity to be moved by Firegirl." --Reviewed by Renee Kirchner

"For Tom Bender, seventh grade isn't all that different from the grades that came before. He still attends a private Catholic school, St. Catherine's. He's still pretty much best friends with Jeff Hicks. He still loves the Cobra, a sports car that he spends plenty of time dreaming about. The few things that are different this year? He has great teacher, Mrs. Tracy. Jeff's uncle actually owns a Cobra, and Jeff has promised Tom a ride in it. He's in love with Courtney Zisky, a girl he fantasizes about saving from make-believe situations on a daily basis. Oh, and Jessica Feeney shows up in his classroom. The day starts out regular enough. Morning prayers, the announcement of a class election, and the impending arrival of a new girl in their class. And then things change more than anyone could have ever imagined, because Mrs. Tracy informs her students that Jessica, the new girl, is unlike anyone they've ever met before. Jessica was burned in a fire, a terrible, horrible tragedy, and she looks different than anyone these kids have ever seen. Tom has only a short time to think about what this means before she's there, the Firegirl, hideously disfigured yet someone how still wholly alive. What follows in the few short weeks that Jessica Feeney is in his class has a life-changing impact on Tom's life. His friend's jokes and elaborate stories they've made up for how Jessica got burned no longer seem funny. His daydreams keeping slipping Courtney out and Jessica in. And during the class election, where Tom wanted to nominate Courtney so she'd know how he felt about her, he's unable to say anything at all. He takes Jessica her homework during one of her many school absences, and learns the truth behind how she was burned, and he cries because she's just a kid like he himself is. Even a ride in the Cobra, which Tom has been dreaming about for years, is pushed by the wayside. Firegirl is the story of being different, of change, and of acceptance. There are no real happily-ever-afters in this book. Jessica isn't miraculously healed, Tom doesn't morph into a superhero or righter of all wrongs, and the students in Mrs. Tracy's class don't all learn that you can accept people who are different. Instead, this is the story of individual strength, of the internal struggle to balance what you know is right with what is wrong. A very inspiring story, indeed."  --Reviewed by Jennifer Wardrip, Rating: 4 Stars.