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.
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.
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.