Robert Nobel, class pariah, becomes involved with the elderly and dying Edith Sorrel who persuades him to overcome his fears and to go to the top of Chance House, a derelict building nearby, and to make her a coat of feathers so that she – like the Firebird in the legend – might sing again.

Robert sees in these requests something which is up to him to do and which he believes might save Mrs Sorrel from the cancer which is eating her up. This purpose gives him strength to overcome Niker’s jibes, to live up to Kate’s expectations, and to come to terms with his own reality. This first-person narrative by the 12-year-old boy, self-explaining but insightful, draws you inside his motives for carrying out the wishes of a dying woman, a series of actions which force him to overcome his own fears and limitations. Although Robert is the class Victim, and Niker the Kingpin, the situation is not black-and-white. Niker is prepared to offer his friendship in private but not to lose his public position at school. Robert is resentful of Niker’s superiority but comes to an uneasy agreement with him after they spend the night alone in a deserted house.

In his own way, Niker does get to know his resident at the Mayfield, in spite of her obvious battiness, and he is proud to be chosen to produce the picture of the firebird’s coat of feathers to complete the display of materials from the class project. In the end, Robert says, he and Niker became “if not friends, then respectful of each other.”

Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of goodtoread.org.