Saturday, November 12, 2011


Today’s tweens and teens might think the word firestorm refers to political rhetoric. No one who is of interest to the media can say much or tweet much without drawing a barrage of withering comments—a firestorm. When I looked up the word in a dictionary, it wasn’t there. Another dictionary, same year as the first, defined it as a fire driven by a violent wind. Yes, lots of hot air. I like the middle grade novel by the same name much better than the storms raging on radio and tv talk shows.

FIRESTORM! by Joan Hiatt Harlow, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010

Poppy’s mother leaves her in a Chicago alley where the little girl is picked up by Ma Brennan, a female Fagin, who teaches girls to steal. Ma has 2 biological daughters whom she favors, but Poppy becomes a skilled pick pocket, and this is what keeps her alive and gives her a place to sleep.

Justin Butterworth is 13 and privileged. His father is Chicago’s most important jeweler. Poppy and Justin meet, and thanks to a pet goat named Tick Tock, they begin to see each other as people, not stereotypes. They become friends. Poppy meets Justin’s sister Claire who tells her she is like a geode. Inside is a sparkly crystal of goodness. This reaches deep inside Poppy, getting underneath all the hurt she has suffered. Poppy doesn’t want to steal anymore. She wants to belong to a real family.

Ma is not willing to give up her star thief, however. She manipulates Poppy by threatening to turn Tick Tock into goat stew, and the plot thickens.

The characters interact, grow, and deepen against the historical background of the Chicago fire which was NOT started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Only the Butterworth family, Poppy, and the girls and Ma Brennan are fictional, although there was a Mary Brennan who taught girls to steal. Other famous people are mentioned but they are in place historically and accurately portrayed. Author Harlow skillfully weaves in bits of history to enlarge the reader’s knowledge of this tragic event. Publication of this novel was timely, during the 150th year observation of the fire.

This is definitely a middle grade novel which girls especially will enjoy. Sensory details are so engaging one can taste the smoke, hear the fire alarms and trucks rushing to respond, feel grit in eyes and nose. A dramatic arc swings wide from tangled relationships to a frantic escape from the raging fire to the resolution of the characters’ complicated problems. In spite of a burned and blackened landscape, this ends well.

Kudos to the author. She’s written other books for this age group and you can find them at her website.


  1. Joan. McElderry Books should hire you for publicity. What an engaging review. How could anyone not want to read this book?

  2. Thanks, Kath. I hope lots of new readers grow into books like these.


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