Firegirl -- Tony Abbott

Um, yeah.  So Tony Abbott can totally, totally join the Ann M. Martin Club. 

(For the uninformed, which is probably most people since I just made the club up, the criteria for induction in the Ann M. Martin Club is as follows:

1) Write a series that is hugely popular despite largely unimpressive critical reviews.
2) Write a fabulous, original, special stand-alone novel.
3) Sit back and giggle as the critics have to eat their words.)

Firegirl is a short book -- if it was an adult novel, I'd call it a novella -- weighing in at under 150 pages.  It's the story of a few weeks in the life of quiet and sweaty Tom Bender, seventh-grade boy, comic book reader, Cobra-lover and dreamer:

Or I would be at recess, flapping cool air into my blazer and talking with the guys about the science quiz, when I'd suddenly look up -- I was the only one who knew to do this at just that moment -- to see Courtney plummeting through the air.  The jet her uncle was piloting was on fire and crashing.

"She bailed out!" I would say.  "Stupid chute didn't open!"

Tossing my blazer aside, I would somehow leap up from the roof of the gym (I was on top of the gym now) and jump sort of sideways across the school yard and catch her just as she fell.  We would tumble slowly and softly to the ground together, on the bright green grass of a golf course that was across the street, and her hair would fly across our faces as we rolled and rolled down a little green hill.  Then it would get a little hazy, but suddenly everyone was crowding around us -- Joey and Rich and Darlene and Mrs. Tracy and Samantha Embriano.

And there would come the moment in front of everyone when Courtney would thank me.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

And she would always be with me after that.

It could happen.

When Jessica Feeney joins Tom's class at St. Catherine's, things don't change much.  Not outwardly, in a way that is obviously apparent.  But add new student to any classroom, and one who is a burn survivor to boot, and things are going to change:

My neck felt thick and stiff.  There was a lump in my throat and a high ringing in my ears.  I remember wondering how someone looking like that could even be alive.  Was she in pain right now?  It seemed like she must be.  As if being in that skin would make you want to scream and scream and scream until you died.

It's clear that Tony Abbott loves these characters -- there's so much affection in the details.  Even when characters acted hateful -- Jeff, mostly, but even Jessica occasionally -- I still felt a strong sense of empathy for them.  I still cared about them.  I cared about them almost immediately, without reservations. 

The reason for that lies in Tom's narration -- he is very thoughtful and sensitive, though he doesn't seem to realize it.  His voice is quite mature -- I was never quite sure how far back this memory, the story of Jessica Feeney, was coming from.  Slap a Richard Dreyfuss end cap (a la Stand By Me) on it, and it wouldn't be out of place in a collection of short stories for adults.

It's a beautiful, sad, achy little story.  There's a subtlety in it that probably won't make it popular with some readers.  In the right hands, though, it'll be cherished.