We are privileged to have several major authors living in the Triangle area, one being the award-winning children’s author Frances O’Roark Dowell. Her very first novel, Dovey Coe, won the Edgar Award, and she has written many books since then, some set in Raleigh and the surrounding area. Chicken Boy is one of my favorites. Ms. Dowell is a warm and sympathetic person, and she has been very generous with her time for the children in Wake County.
Her newest novel, The Second Life of Abigail Walker, is getting some Newbery buzz. Lest you be deceived, it is not about zombies or vampires. Abby doesn’t die and come back to life, rather she begins to see her life more clearly and decides that she can take control of it for herself, that she does not have to accept what other people say about her or what they want her to do.
Abby’s best friend moved away just before sixth grade, which is already a very complicated time in a girl’s life. Kristen, the middle-school Queen Bee and resident mean girl, has decided to adopt Abby and let her sit at her lunch table, surrounded by all of the popular girls whom Abby has privately started calling “the medium girls.” They are of medium weight and medium intelligence, and their parents live in medium-sized houses and make medium amounts of money. Abby would like to be medium, just so that she could blend in, but the price to pay to sit at the popular table is to endure ceaseless teasing about her weight. Abby is not really fat; she weighs 105 pounds. The medium girls, though, all weigh around 90 pounds, and their conversation veers between feigned concern for Abby’s health and laughing scorn.
At home, things are no better. Abby’s parents have put her on a diet. Abby’s mother is a cheerful worrier; I think the term today is “helicopter mom.” She wants Abby to make new friends and have a picture-perfect life, and part of that project is to watch every morsel that goes into Abby’s mouth. Abby has two brothers, and Mom makes cookies for them when they come home from school, but Abby can’t have any. On pizza night, her brothers get pepperoni pizza, but Abby can only have one slice of cheese pizza. Not surprisingly, Abby has started to hide candy bars in the pockets of the clothes in her closet. Her father is much, much worse, as he shows thinly-veiled disgust for his daughter. In one heartbreaking scene, Abby is browsing the family pictures on her father’s office wall, and she realizes that he has not hung any pictures of her since she was a baby.
The lot across the street from Abby’s house has been vacant for a long time and has been allowed to grow wild. As Abby is a reader and a talented artist, she has begun taking a lawn chair and cooler over there to draw and to read about birds and wildlife. One day, she is bitten—gently!—by a fox, and after that her life begins to change. Is the fox magical? I’ll let you decide, but every once in a while, the fox narrates a chapter. She has been all over the world and seems to transcend time, and she cares for Abby. She sees the mean girls looking for Abby, and she calls them “the raccoon girls,” since raccoons sum up everything despicable in her world. Abby thinks that the fox is speaking to her and helping her to think differently. <Spoiler Alert> Before long, Abby starts eating her lunch with two nice Indian boys, finds out that the computer-geek girl is very smart and interesting, and meets a homeschooled boy, Anders, and his family. All of these characters work together to help Anders’ dad, who is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Abby discovers strengths in herself that she never knew she possessed.
I read this book in one sitting on Saturday morning, which is less impressive when you consider how talented I am at sitting. I found Abby to be an extremely likable character, probably because she was a chubby child, so I could relate. However, I was never teased by kids at school, and my parents were always wonderful. I hated Abby’s parents, especially her father, and I must say that Ms. Dowell did an excellent job in building that emotion in the reader. It was so well done, since as a child, you could just feel Abby’s helplessness as she tried to be happy with herself in spite of, rather than because of, her parents. On the other hand, as a parent, I understand how much you want to save your children from any sadness or trial in life, and you just can’t see that you are making the problem worse. I also applaud Ms. Dowell for bringing resolution through having Abby look outside of herself to help and appreciate other people, rather than making this yet another novel in which the character finally loses weight and— poof!— all of her problems are solved and she lives happily ever after. The weaving in of the fox as a wise character who can see more of the picture than anyone else was interesting. The reader is comforted to know that the fox sees Abby the way we do, and that although we are helpless, perhaps the fox can show Abby the truth.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone 10 and up, especially girls—and their parents.
Disclaimer: All of the opinions expressed are my own and are not those of my employer or anyone else. I read a library copy of the book.