“The Key to the Golden Firebird,” by Maureen Johnson

Last week, I wrote an entry about a trip to a book event in Syracuse. I’m currently on another, much further trip – Philadelphia! I came to the city for an honors conference, not a literary endeavor. Nevertheless, as we chugged along on the highway in our extremely large, rented black van, passing skyscrapers and buildings so ornate they must be Historical, I was reminded of one of my favorite young adult novels: Maureen Johnson’s The Key to the Golden Firebird.

Maureen Johnson’s twitter profile… and a sample of her kind of humor.

In the world of young adult literature, Maureen Johnson’s name is more or less synonymous with “superstar.” Aside from having published ten novels, she has an abundant online presence. She’s particularly well-known for her offbeat tweets. I first discovered her work, however, long before she became an Internet sensation, probably before she had a twitter account. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I pulled The Key to the Golden Firebird off the shelf of my local library. I didn’t know that a Firebird was a car, or that the novel was set in Philadelphia. I picked it up because of its bright yellow and pink cover.

The Key to the Golden Firebird mainly follows May Gold, the sixteen-year-old middle child in the family of three girls. May’s father dies of a sudden heart attack at the beginning of the novel. The story then jumps to a year later, and explores the different ways the Gold sisters cope with the loss. May’s mom works over-time at the hospital to help pay the bills, leaving May and her two sisters to fend for themselves. Brooks, the oldest of the family, quits softball and starts hanging out with a different, more booze-fueled crowd. Palmer, the baby of the family, tries to distract herself with softball practice and television. May – the bookish, unathletic sister – to try to hold things together.

And then there’s Pete Camp. A long-time family friend, he and May have always been… well, less than friendly. Good-natured – and perhaps less well-natured – pranks once drove the relationship between the two. When May fails her driving test – an experience to which I personally relate – Pete ends up being the only one around to teach her. The two attempt to put aside their differences for the sake of May’s driver license. In one notable scene, Pete tries to take May driving on one of Philadelphia’s highway. It was this scene that reminded me today, as our professor wove through the mess of last-minute lane-changing cars, that reminded me of the novel.

Photo of Philadelphia as seen from the highway in our enormous black rental van. Photo taken by Paige Belisle.

I think what really made this book was the characterization. Although the book focused around May, the narration sometimes shifted to her sisters, Brooks and Palmer. Each girl had their own individual ways of dealing with their father’s death. And for a book about death, it stays remarkably, refreshingly free of clichés and cheesiness. The bonding between the sisters didn’t take place in the form of hugs and shared cups of coffee; instead, their connection shone through in a road-trip convenience store stop and a wild dash off the field at Camden Yards.

To address the YA elephant in the room – yes, there is some romance in the novel. I think Johnson does an excellent job of balancing the love interest aspect of the story with the sisters’ relationships and development. For May, her growing interest in a guy feels natural; instead of distracting from the other themes of the story, it reinforces the idea that May needs to learn to live her own life; as much as she loves her sisters, it’s not up to her to be responsible for them.

This book came out quite awhile ago, but it’s one I still like revisit quite often. What rereads do you still enjoy years later? Any books you stumbled upon a bit by accident and ended up loving? Let me know in comments.

Maureen Johnson’s Website
Maureen Johnson’s Twitter
The Key to the Golden Firebird on GoodReads


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7 responses to ““The Key to the Golden Firebird,” by Maureen Johnson

  1. It’s especially gripping when your real-life experience corresponds with a novel and this is certainly no exception. Though I am admittedly unfamiliar with the author, it was no less interesting to hear about her, especially when it came to her popular Twitter and online presence. In a day and age when the computer is (not so)slowly taking over the printed page, the blending between these two is intriguing.

    Also, I love the ending with a question. It really is a great way to end a blog post. Consider it stolen, haha.

    As for my favorite reread, it would probably be one of any David Sedaris books, or if I’m up for a challenge, James Joyce.

  2. Casey Croucher

    I love how you related your car ride to Philadelphia with a scene from the book you review in this post. “The Key to the Golden Firebird” sounds like a book I would enjoy reading; the genre seems to be right up my alley and you said that it deals with death without any cliches or cheesiness, which is one of my pet peeves.

    To answer your question (which was a great idea, by the way), I really don’t know. I’ve re-read so many books in my room back home, because I get on a kick of reading and that’s all I’ll want to do, and when I finish reading the new books that I have, I’ll look at my shelves, underneath my bed, or wherever I’ve hidden books and choose one to re-read. Although, I can safely say that the Harry Potter series has been re-read a few too many times!

    • Casey, I have a feeling you would love “The Key to the Golden Firebird.” Maureen Johnson has a wickedly funny sense of humor that reminds me of your essay. Harry Potter has always been a big re-read for me… I haven’t read all the way through the series that much, but I’ve read Order of the Phoenix several, several times, as well as many of my favorite scenes from Deathly Hallows.

  3. iannead

    My hometown in PA is only an hour and a half from Philly! E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES!

    I liked the post overall. It’s great when life experiences relate back to favorite memories. I consistently reread The Giver by Lois Lowry. I read it in 8th grade for a book report, and can finish it in less than a day now. It’s just a wonderful read about how the future may be, and it’s written for the understandings of younger audiences. What I really appreciate about The Giver is that such a sophisticated and evolutionary idea is written so well to be understood by the younger audiences it targets.

    It seems like The Key to the Golden Firebird is the same for you, so I can fully appreciate where you came from in writing this post.

  4. To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Maureen Johnson. But you sold this book quite well, and I think I might pursue her work. I also don’t think you could’ve picked a better week to post about her either. As for suggestions, I’d really like to see some of her other books mentioned as well. Do any of them have similar themes?

    As for me, I love to reread, almost more than reading a book for the first time. But whenever I go home, I usually pick up a book by Garth Nix, especially his Seventh Tower series. It’s on the younger range of YA, but it was one of the first series I read where the female protagonist really took the stage.

  5. I recently went to Philadephia too!! Philly-cations all around, aaayyyeeee! You do a really great job of telling us something about the book without giving too much away. I got a really good sense of what this book was about. I wanted to see the book relate to your trip more, though!

    To answer your question (A+ idea wow,) I’ve read Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby many, many times. I really took a liking to all of the books we were assigned to read in the 10th grade, they really spoke to me, I dunno. I know there have been accidental books…I just know there have been…but I can’t think of any. Wow.

  6. Pingback: Road Trip Down Memory Lane | Book Endeavors

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