It's just a coin with an angel on one side. That's what Bette thought... and Joe... and Vivian. These three young teenagers all attend the same middle school that focuses on the performing arts, and each of them carry the coin in their pocket for a special period of time.
It's Bette who originally finds the coin in a can of money that her sister collected for charity. She is lonely and directionless since her mother died in a car accident. And even though she's going to a special magnet school to hone her singing skills, she just hasn't felt like singing ever since her mother died--it reminds her too much of the way things were before the accident.
But after she discovers the coin, a lovely young woman comes to live in the downstairs apartment. Bette is suspicious at first, but then finds herself opening up to Gabi and spilling out all the pent up emotions and thoughts and fears that she has stored up since her mother passed away. Gabi, with her intense gray eyes, asks the piercing questions that cause Bette to think about singing and performing again. Ultimately though, it's the challenge of the neighborhood boy, Joe, that forces her onstage. He thinks that she is just filling one of the neighborhood spots in the school and has no real talent to use in the musical that the 7th and 8th grades were going to perform at the end of the year.
After Bette gets up and does a spectacular impromptu audition, Joe notices the small angel medallion that she left on her desk after a class. He knew that it was special to her and took it out of spite. He was angry. Angry that she could sing. Angry that he seemed to be the only student at the school without any "talent." He was angry that his father left him and was irresponsible about paying child support. And he was angry that his mother had to work so hard, only to keep getting sick, fired, and evicted from the tiny apartments that they live in. At first the talisman felt cold and distant, but eventually he took some comfort from the feel of it in his pocket--even though it was annoying that it was often the only thing he felt in his pocket when he would often have preferred to have a few dollars and other coins mixed in.
After he takes the angel coin, the principal of the school introduces him to Mike Sullivan, a carpenter who works for the theater where the school musical will be performed. Mike understands about how Joe loves to work with wood and use his hands. By listening and carefully considering Joe's suggestions, Mike proves that Joe can be a helpful contributor to the musical. And he shows Joe a new way of thinking about people by asking him the right questions at the right time. There is no getting away from his forceful, almost intimidating presence--but Mike is unfailingly kind and understanding, which is new and inspiring to Joe. Deciding to do something nice for a boy that he previously mistreated, Joe takes the angel coin and gives it to him, hoping that it will help him and his sister, who was terribly ill from her asthma attacks.
Vivian was a little confused when her brother gave her an angel coin. But when she went into the hospital because she couldn't breathe, she was glad to have its company. Can you see the pattern here? Vivian's problem is that she is so focused on her physical appearance and thinks that the medication that she needs to take is making her fat and ugly. But Dr. Raphael comes along and puts her on a new medication and gives her the hope of slowly recovering and getting off the steroids that made her face look so "puffy." What's more, she teaches her to think about living and about being grateful for things in the world and in life.
In the end, Bette, Joe, and Vivian all realize that these people entered their lives during the time that they had the little angel coin... and since they all changed and grew, they didn't feel like they needed the coin anymore. So when they saw a charity can by the cash register in Starbucks, they all the thought the same thing. This is where it came from, and it will make it's way along to the next person who needs it.
Of course, the truly interesting thing about Ilene Cooper's depiction of the characters is that each "angel" had a perfectly normal, natural explanation for their entrance into the children's lives. Gabi needed a place to stay short-term; Mike was helping with the props for the play; and Dr. Raphael was helping with Vivian's medical problems. But they all did so much more than that! And I'm sure it's no coincidence that Gabi could be short for the famous angel Gabriel, and Mike could be short for Michael--another Biblical angel name. Did the coin actually have some power attached to it? Possibly. Or maybe, just maybe, the thought of the angel on the coin made the children more aware and receptive to the help that they needed from the people that could give it.
I wouldn't say that this is an especially life-changing or inspiring book. And I certainly don't think that its pseudo-spiritual ideas reflect the reality of what God has made and given us in creation. But I do believe in angels and even though I don't know what form they take in the world, this is a truly sweet story that has certainly made me think about how well I listen and learn from others. And of course, it also makes me consider the power of kind words and actions and a few moments of sincere listening and understanding.