CHARACTERS DON’T JUST FADE AWAY : THE GREAT JEFF by Tony Abbott
My novel Firegirl was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2006. The story was narrated by seventh-grader Tom Bender, and it centered on the three weeks that a severely burned student named Jessica Feeney joined his class. A number of small incidents made up the drama, both in and out of school. Tom’s friend Jeff Hicks wasn’t nice to Jessica, both to her face and behind her back. He was going through a rough situation at home and acted out his suffering toward her.
As brief as the book was, only a hundred and forty-five pages, I think it’s meant more to me than any other novel I’ve written. It was my first story to wade into some difficult emotional territory. Readers responded right away, with the most wonderful, considered, and thoughtful expressions about Tom and Jessica, about Jeff Hicks, and about Courtney, the girl Tom liked.
I suppose Firegirl does end with several untied threads, and over the years some readers have wondered how I might tie them up. Do Tom and Jessica ever meet again after their short time knowing each other? Do they become boyfriend and girlfriend? Does Jessica find a miraculous cure for her burn injuries? How will Jeff be punished for the cruel ways he acted toward her?
Whenever I could, I responded, “Well, what do you think happens?” What struck me was how diverse and powerful their answers were. Some were kind, some logical, some angry, some sad. I loved hearing them. I didn’t want to stop hearing them. After more than a dozen years, I still hear readers’ expressions and am so grateful that the book has remained in print and accessible for so long. I’ll admit that over the years it began to bother me that at the end of the story Tom essentially drops Jeff out of his life. It seemed cruel to me, the sharpness of the break. Was there another story there? Ultimately, I told myself no. I’ve always liked the way Firegirl ends and felt that writing my own sequel would be wrong, because it would cancel out readers’ many inventive storylines and be a disservice to the many different ways they’ve have responded to the characters.
And then a thing happened.
If you’re a writer, you’ll know that sometimes characters sneak up on you. Not long ago, I saw a boy sitting at a library table, reading. A voice in my head told me instantly that the boy was Jeff Hicks, that he was in trouble, and that he was trying desperately to keep a secret. I hadn’t been thinking at all about Firegirl, but after a dozen years I sat myself down and began The Great Jeff, a story that takes place a year after the incidents in Firegirl. Jeff takes center stage, narrating what is happening with him. Jessica Feeney is offstage, yes, but Tom and Courtney are here, along with more about Rich Downing, Jeff’s single remaining friend.
The Great Jeff appears in March 2019 after so many years of denial and gestation and, finally, creation. Which is only to say that characters continue. We may turn away for a time, but they’re still moving and breathing and living their lives. I guess the life of characters is exactly what readers have responded to these past many years. I hope they keep responding. Because when a character speaks to you, you can’t help but speak back. That’s one of the great joys of reading. Things and people we thought were elsewhere or gone are still with us after all. If we’re lucky we catch sight of them, we lean in and listen and soon find ourselves in the middle of a brand new story. It’s thanks to readers and teachers across the country that this pretty remarkable continuum exists.
Tony Abbott has written many books for young readers aged 6 to 14, including the series The Secrets of Droon and The Copernicus Legacy, and the award-winning novels Firegirl and The Postcard. His other novels include Lunch-Box Dream, 2011, The Summer of Owen Todd, 2017, Denis Ever After, 2018, and The Great Jeff, Spring 2019. Tony has been on the faculty of Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing and is a frequent conference speaker and visitor to schools. His website is www.tonyabbottbooks.com.