Tony Abbott's Firegirl was published in 2008 by Little Brown. It is a children’s story about Tom Bender and how he navigates his way around Jessica, a disfigured burn victim. He struggles to deal with her presence in his neighborhood and class, which changes all aspects of his life. The novel is told in first person and this immediacy connects the reader’s empathy to Tom and to Jessica.
At St. Catherine’s School, Mrs. Tracy prepares the students for Jessica, who has moved to town in order to take advantage of special medical attention. Despite the preparations for Jessica, the teacher is unable to offset her shocking appearance. Most of the students avoid looking at her altogether. Mrs. Tracy arranges to have Jessica sit between Jeff, Tom’s best friend, and Tom. Jeff moves his desk away. Tom stays in place and struggles to appear normal even if he feels frightened inside.
The students begin to come up with stories about how Jessica was burned in a fire. True to the nature of rumors, the stories grow. After school one day, Tom learns the real story about Jessica when the teacher asks him to deliver homework to her. From this point Tom begins an uneasy friendship with Jessica.
Tom describes himself as the sweaty, chubby kid. He feels that nobody really notices him. This accounts for his sensitivity as he interacts with Jessica. Their awkward friendship begins to gain depth until Jessica’s family must leave down to have access to another hospital in a different city. Tom is changed forever for having known her albeit for a short period of time.
Tom does his best in a tough situation. His struggle to be fair and good is what makes the story compelling. He is not extraordinary; he is rather ordinary. The changes in his character are not extreme one way or another, but he does change. His self-examination and introspection are steps toward adulthood. In that, Firegirl is a coming-of-age story that centers on how Tom views friendship and deals with acceptance: it is about what stirs inside when a person looks beyond the surface and seeks a genuine connection with another person.