Eleven-year-old Abby walked right into my heart from the enchanting pages of Frances O'Roark Dowell's The Second Life of Abigail Walker. The vegetarian fox slipped in too. The presence of this fox adds a touch of anticipation to Dowell's story, the feeling that anything might happen.
The main story is straight-forward - girl develops self-esteem - but the secondary storyline, involving a soldier traumatized by his experiences in Iraq, is tied to the fox. This layer allows Abby to become aware that she is a part of a larger community, outside of school and her family.
Abby is a chubby girl who does not fit in. She has been hanging with a group of popular girls after her best friend moves away, but they are mean to her. She summons her courage and decides to face the consequences of abandoning the relative safety of their group. Abby is endearingly sensible, taking responsibility for her mistakes, accepting her shortcomings and dealing with the bullies.
One of the girls, Georgia, "stopped at Abby's seat and leaned down to whisper in her ear. 'You're dead,' she hissed, and Abby felt confused. Really? Kristen and Georgia were going to kill her? Were going to have her killed? She blew into her fist. Her breath was warm. She wasn't dead, and she probably wasn't going to be dead anytime soon. 'Okay,' Abby replied to Georgia. 'That's fine.' "
Later, Abby meets someone while she is avoiding these girls. "How could she explain to an almost nine-year-old boy the terrible things girls did? The secret, down-low, parents-never-figure-it-out, terrible things that girls did to you if you were too fat or too skinny or had pimples or wore the wrong kind of jeans. 'They can kill you,' she said after a moment. 'Only, other people don't know that you're dead. Only you know, on the inside.'
Some things make adults die on the inside too, as Abby discovers, but she also learns that resurrection is possible. The Second Life of Abigail Walker is a charming and timeless story for Grade 4-6.
Readalike: Liar & Spy (Rebecca Stead)