Tony Abbott released his most recent book, “The Great Jeff” in late March, which focuses on a boy and his mother struggling with homelessness.
Abbott, who lives in Trumbull, returned to the world of his popular novel “Fire Girl” — this time focusing on Jeff, a boy who had bullied a girl named Jessica for her burns. Abbott said after a dozen years Jeff’s character returned to him with a story about his own set of problems, which led to the creation of “The Great Jeff.”
After the events of “Fire Girl,” Jeff finds himself going to a large public school, where he doesn’t have many friends, so his life has become more isolated. At the beginning of the book his mother comes home drunk and announces that she has lost her job and from there the panic begins to set in. As Jeff’s homelife becomes increasingly unstable, Jeff begins to fade away and walks the halls of his school like a ghost.
Abbott admits that Jeff is not the most likeable character in “Fire Girl” or even at the beginning of “The Great Jeff.”
“He’s kind of a loner, but he’s still got an edge to him. He’s still kinda snotty and he talks back to his mother. He won’t take a lot of guff from anybody. And I think it was important to start out his story in this new book with him being recognizable as an outlier, as a misfit, as the sort of person you might not want to choose as a friend,” he said. “As the story is told in his voice the reader really can’t help but get into his mind and his emotions and the way he’s looking at the world and feel a bit more sympathy with him as the pages go by. As his situation at home deteriorates step by step, my hope is the reader will follow him and say at point, ‘oh, poor Jeff.’”
Unfortunately for Jeff, his problems extend beyond struggling to keep his home. His mother is an alcoholic, he’s not eating and his mother increasingly turns to Jeff to fix their problems. Once Jeff and his mom find themselves sleeping in their car, they decide it’s time for them to go to a shelter.
Abbott said he did a considerable amount of research into this, speaking to the director of Operation Hope and touring a women and children’s shelter to gain a better understanding of what Jeff would see and experience. Abbott also spoke with middle school personnel to see how Jeff could try to hide his situation from teachers at his school.
“I really wanted to get the details right,” he said.
Throughout the book Jeff finds himself ruminating on his reading assignments, particularly on “The House on Mango Street.” Abbott said he chose Jeff’s assignments to tie back into his situation. “‘The House on Mango Street’ is such a deep and lovely text that concerns itself with a house, a living situation, something that defines you and Jeff is losing that in this book,” he said.
Abbott has written over a hundred books and several of those books deal with heavy topics for his young/tween readers. His books have covered a variety of difficult topics including sexual abuse (“The Summer of Owen Todd”) and grief (“Denis Ever After”). When asked how he approaches writing about difficult subjects for a young audience, Abbott said, he just wants to tell truthful stories for young readers and young adults because he feels that sugarcoating information will only harm children down the road.
“One of the things I find myself feeling responsible about is to tell a story that is truthful. It’s not always lovely, it’s not always beautiful or easy to read and some of it is disagreeable but if I have been able to tell a true story in a way that a young reader can understand, then I think that’s the most important,” he said. “Young readers can handle it, I think they’re so much more aware than we give them credit for.”
When discussing the book’s title, Abbott notes that Jeff is clearly not in a great place throughout the book.
“Jeff is obviously not great in a sense, but there is without being trite about it, there is a possibility that anyone can be great. And yet by the end of the book he becomes someone I certainly look up to and I hope readers will feel that way too.”
For more information about the author and the book, visit tonyabbottbooks.com.