Award-Winning Books Multicultural - Diversity Reading Themes

That One Time When a Girl Named Jessica Changed the Lives of St. Catherine’s Seventh Graders


Fats here.

The book I’m about to share with you today was not on my list of books for our current theme. I was at the library when I happened to be browsing the “A” section of the juvenile fiction shelf when I saw Tony Abbott’s Firegirl. I’ve seen the book a bunch of times when I visited Barnes & Noble and Book Off in San Diego but never really had the chance to read it. I borrowed the book because I thought it fits our Rainbow Colors of Diversity as it shares the story of Jessica Feeney, one of the many voices of the silenced.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Firegirl was told in the perspective of Tom Bender, one of the seventh graders in Mrs. Tracy’s class at St. Catherine’s. The narrative was a recollection of the events that happened after Jessica Feeney’s arrival, and it was short as Jessica’s stay in New Haven. Tom began his story with the following lines:

It wasn’t much, really, the whole Jessica Feeney thing. If you look at it, nothing much happened. She was a girl who came into my class after the beginning of the year and was only there for a couple of weeks or so. Stuff did get a little crazy for a while, but it didn’t last long, and I think it was mostly in my head anyway. Then she wasn’t there anymore.

That was pretty much it. (p. 1)

With 144 pages waiting to be read, there was, of course, more to the story of Firegirl than Tom initially claimed. It wasn’t until a few chapters in when Jessica appeared in the story. Jessica Feeney was the new girl in Tom’s seventh-grade class, and life was never the same for everyone since then.

Jessica Feeney’s face, the first thing everyone looked at, was like a mask. I looked at her, then away, and then back at her. I couldn’t believe I was looking at the face of someone alive.

The skin was all rough and uneven. It looked almost smeared and was stained with all shades of pink and white and red.

Her lips were swollen. They nearly filled the space between her nose and chin. Her eyes peeked out from behind skin that looked melted. Her hair was mostly short. Her arms were covered, except that the forearms were bare and blotchy. Her fingers were bent as if she were trying to grab something.


Finally, she sat down at her desk.

Jessica Feeney. The burned girl. (pp. 33-34)

I couldn’t remember if I’ve had a burn patient in my three years of working at a skilled nursing facility but I’ve seen a few. It’s easy to look up pictures of burn victims in the Internet, but it’s not the same when you actually see one. One can’t help but notice the almost featureless face, the skin discoloration, and the disfigured image of a burn victim. After all, it’s the physical attribute of a person that one sees first.

Last night, I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It was my third (maybe fourth?) time watching it. I still cringed at the sight of Bootstrap Bill whose one side of his face was covered with barnacles and who has skin and figure that belonged to the sea. Then I thought about Jessica and the reactions of Tom and his classmates. It was a mix of fear, disgust, and loathing. Although not directly stated in the book, to the seventh grade class of Mrs. Tracy, Jessica Feeney was a monster. In today’s lingo, she was a sight they could not unsee.


If the story of Firegirl were to be divided into sections, there would be a Before, During, and After Jessica Feeney—mostly applicable to Tom. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Jessica didn’t appear until a bit later in the book. Prior to her arrival, Tom Bender liked to daydream about the beautiful, seemingly perfect Courtney Zisky, and had high hopes of riding a Cobra, a 1960s sports car, someday. Tom’s description of the Cobra and an entire chapter dedicated on Courtney Zisky were a stark contrast to Jessica Feeney and the impact she made on his life. I liked that, for two weeks, Tom was swooshed from his daydreams to reality, allowing him to have a wider perspective in life.

I root for the underdogs, and I felt my heart break every time one of Tom’s classmates talked about Jessica horribly behind her back. (I keep saying “Tom’s classmates” or “Tom and his classmates” because I don’t think Jessica ever really belonged to the class. Mrs. Tracy herself felt uncomfortable.) I like how Jessica’s situation was well represented in the book cover. It was also a reference to one of the parts in the book where the children had to hold hands in prayer. Jeff, Tom’s best friend, refused to hold Jessica’s hand as if she has a contagious disease. (Note: Despite the many hurtful things said by Tom’s classmates, the tragic story of how Jessica suffered the burns was more compelling and heartbreaking. It haunted Jessica more than the jeers and taunts from other people.)

Firegirl is a good eye-opener for kids, especially those who are Tom’s age. Children need to be reminded that looks are not a basis for friendship—for acceptance. It’s easy for some people to judge but difficult for them to see beyond the physical and get to know the person within. One almost doesn’t notice the change in Tom’s attitude because it was gradual, but it was there. I agree with Patricia Reilly Giff when she described Firegirl as “a beautiful story, a sad story, brilliantly written, a story you’ll never forget.” Through the voice of Tom Bender, Firegirl tells the story of Jessica Feeney matter-of-factly, without the promise of a happy or sad, good or bad ending. Yet, her story crawls in your heart and lingers there for a while.


Reading Challenge Update: 52 (25)

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5 comments on “That One Time When a Girl Named Jessica Changed the Lives of St. Catherine’s Seventh Graders

  1. I loved this book (the invincible pinky! 😉 )!


    • Fats Suela

      Aww! I remember that! When Tom and Jessica were talking about small powers. =)


  2. This sounds like a great book. Thanks for sharing it!


    • Fats Suela

      The story is so simple but kids can learn a thing or two about compassion and acceptance.


  3. Pingback: [BHE 99] Showing More Love to Diversity |

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