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I pretend to look at her kitchen while I think about everything Lily has just said and how she must feel when people pretend not to see her, or her illness. She’s sick, not stupid, so being invisible must be…well…it must certainly be something. I’m just not sure what. Worse still, I don’t know if I’m one of those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever ‘not seen’ someone, or if I’ve seen their illness instead of them. I’ve never thought about it before.

From the title alone I could tell this book would be something different. Where other stories about people living with disabilities can be sanctimonious or overly sentimental, Rebecca Bloomer set out to tell her tale with good humour and directness. It is an approach not unlike Foley Russel’s own, as he goes about getting to know the ‘poor girl’, of the title, Lily, who is living with cystic fibrosis. My father was a special needs teacher prior to his retirement, which in effect resulted in every student within the school considered ‘not normal’, winding up in dad’s class. Consequently issues relating to the integration of children with disabilities are something that I have always cared deeply about.

I would like to thank Odyssey Books for the review copy of this book.

Foley Russel and his mate Shay enjoy each other’s company too much to bother with schoolwork. After all, water fights and computer console games are a lot more fun than reading some boring old book. So it takes a special kind of teacher to get through to them and luckily Miss D just happens to be just that kind of educator. Invited out on a day’s outing to the local library, the boys are surprised to find an odd assemblage of local heroes and authors waiting for them inside. Miss D explains that they are each going to write a special book report about some very special people. Everyone gathered within the library has either featured in, or written a book. The students have to choose a subject and then review the book that concerns them.

On a whim Foley approaches the girl sitting in a wheel chair, wondering what speeds it could reach with a rocket attached to the back.

Lily Ashford has not had a book written about her. In fact she has written one of her own, a fantasy novel about a prince lost in a dark wood threatened by shadow beasts. Foley does not understand why Lily writes about princes and magic when she has a tube up her nose. That’s worth writing about, right? Lily explains that she’s tired of being seen as a disease instead of a thirteen-year-old. She wants to escape from being stared at in the street, or having to sit in small classes with other kids living with disabilities. Slowly Foley begins to understand and Lily becomes more than that girl in a wheelchair, but a friend.

Bloomer writes with admirable humour and insight about her characters. First Foley and Shay are well captured as self-involved teenagers, but this does not exclude the parents featured in the novel from the same degree of character detail. Oftentimes novels for children, or young adult fiction rely upon that Charles Schulz trick of reducing the adult world to white noise, incomprehensible to the younger protagonists. Both Foley and Lily’s mothers have their own lives. Their pleasure at the growing friendship between their children is as much due to the love they feel for their kids, as it is happiness at the prospect of having made a new friend of their own.

Bloomer also intersperses explanatory boxes similar to hyperlinked Wikipedia articles into the text, giving greater clarity to what is being said. This illustrates the purpose of Foley Russel and That Poor Girl desiring to inform, but not preach, broaching the painful subject matter in a familiar and intimate way.

Impassioned, yet affectionate, this is a very enriching novel.

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