The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Cindy: When Lynn handed over her latest public library find,  (Atheneum 2012), I wasn’t quite sure where the story was going to lead me when I read the opening page:

The fox had been stepping into stories since the beginning of time. Important stories, everyday stories, stories that only mattered to one or two people. She sniffed stories out. When she smelled one that interested her, she closed her eyes and leaped into the air, moving through the invisible space between one story and the next. Sometimes she took chances and landed in unfortunate places. Like the story of the soldiers in the middle of desert, the sand seeded with explosives. A fox could get killed in a story like that.

The fox didn’t know what had drawn her to this field, but she waits to find out.

Abby lives across the street from this vacant lot where the fox waits.

“Abby was trying to feel brave, but feeling brave was not something she was good at. In fact, she was chicken. A coward. A natural-born conflict avoider. And she was doomed. Whatever happened next, it would not be good, and her day, which had been completely rotten so far, would only get worse.”

Middle grade girls can be mean. And Abby is surrounded by them. Girls who pretend to be friendly around adults but are plotting their next mean move all the while. One day, spurred on my the encounter with the fox, Abby decides she has had enough. She is going to walk away from these toxic friendships even if it means being alone. She reinvents herself as Abigail and begins her second life as a girl who vows to be true to herself. Her story and the fox’s are intertwined with a boy and his Iraq veteran father who is struggling with post traumatic stress. As I said, I wasn’t sure where this novel was going to take me, but I was eager to keep turning the pages and watch the story unfold.

Lynn:  I am a big fan of Dowell’s writing and completely loved this one for so many reasons.  Using magical realism in books for young readers is a tricky thing but here it not only works wonderfully but is an integral part of the story not just a plot trick.   Dowell’s prose is masterful with the kind of beautiful word use that made me want to read parts of it aloud to anyone around me and again, done in a way that moves the story forward, is completely child-centered and helps the reader to see through Abigail’s eyes.  Then there are the themes Dowell explores:  bullying, post traumatic stress syndrome and what that does to families and relationships, finding one’s identity in the face of how others see you, weight in our culture and friendship.  Lots to think about in this accessible little book.  What I loved most however are the characters.  Dowell does a brilliant job of putting us into the head and hearts of her characters who all behave in ways that feel completely authentic.

Many scenes from this book have really stayed with me but one especially involves the 2 girls who are bullying Abigail and show up on her front porch.  Abigail’s mother is completely clueless about the situation and insists that Abigail take the girls up to her room.

“Abby, these girls are your best friends, and they care about you.  The three of you should go upstairs and talk.”…

“C’mon, let’s talk, Abby,” Kristen echoed Abby’s mother.  “We want to help you.”

This scene with the mean girls is absolutely on target and captures that helpless sense kids have of living one thing and KNOWING that the adults see something different and totally don’t get it.  I was right back in 6th grade myself in that section and I think kids will want to cheer at this understanding portrayal of their world.  Abby solves her problems in a way that also felt completely authentic and had me cheering her newfound sense of personal power as well.  This is a really good year for middle-grade novels and, for me, this quiet but powerful book is one of the best.

Bullying is a hot topic and an important topic in schools these days.  The Second Life of Abigail Walker would make a terrific classroom read aloud and be a jumping off point to lots of valuable discussion on bullying and how to deal with it.  Pair this with Cliques:  Deal With It Using What You Have Inside (Lorimer 2012) by Kat Mototsune or John Burstein’s Why Are You Picking On Me?:  Dealing With Bullies (Crabtree 2010).

Common Core Connections

After reading aloud The Second Life of Abigail Walker have the class read a chapter on bullying from one of the nonfiction books mentioned above or from a book suggested by the school librarian.

Ask the students to discuss the two texts and to summarize the methods suggested by the nonfiction book on how to deal with bullies.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.2 Summarize a written text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Ask the students write a 3 paragraph response,  comparing the methods suggested by the experts in the nonfiction book with how Abigail dealt with bullies in the fictional account using specific evidence from the books.  Ask the students to reflect on what methods they think are most effective.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.1 Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees.

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