Seventeen-year-old Amber Appleton’s life has not been easy. Her father left her and her mother when Amber was just a toddler. Since then, her mother has drifted between jobs and boyfriends in the town of Childress. At the moment, they are homeless, living in “Hello Yellow,” the school bus her mother drives as her day job.
Amber’s best friend is Triple B, or Bobby Big Boy, the tiny mutt she rescued from a shoebox a year ago. He keeps her company at night when her mom is at the bars looking for a new boyfriend. Amber tries not to hold a grudge, knowing her mom does the best she can, but sometimes it is hard not to get angry as she knows her mom drinks away a lot of the money she earns, which is why they go hungry much of the time and have to live in a bus.
Amber’s human best friend is Ricky Roberts, an autistic savant. She and Triple B go to Ricky’s house every morning and make breakfast for Ricky and his mom, Donna. Donna is Amber’s inspiration, having come out of poverty by earning a scholarship to college and becoming a successful lawyer. Donna suspects Amber’s home life is not the best, so she never says anything about the amount of time Amber spends at the house. She even buys food for Triple B. Amber also walks Ricky home from school and cooks dinner for the three of them before going back to the school bus.
An eternal optimist and diehard fan of JC, Jesus Christ, Amber seeks to spread hope and cheer to everyone she meets. She formed the Franks Freak Force Five, a club with her, Ricky, and three other “freaks” from school she met in a special education class in fifth grade. She was sent there because she had missed so much school due to taking road trips with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, a truck driver. The other members, Ty (the only black student in the school), Chad (a boy in a wheelchair) and Jared (a boy who stutters) have been inseparable ever since. They even take on the school board to save their favorite teacher, Mr. Franks, from having his job terminated.
Amber teaches English to Korean women at the Catholic Church after school once a week. Father Chee, the middle-aged Korean priest, lets her liven the lessons up by allowing Amber to use songs by the Supremes to teach the women. She calls the group the KDFCs, which stands for Korean Divas for Christ. Father Chee is Amber’s confessor and another of her favorite people. On Wednesday afternoons, Amber goes to the nursing home and bribes the woman at the front desk, Door Woman Lucy, with a candy bar and cocoa to let her bring Bobby Big Boy inside.
In the common room, Amber holds a battle between Hope and Pessimism. She defends the optimistic side, while Joan of Old, a crabby blind woman confined to a wheelchair, fights to pop Amber’s hopeful bubble. Amber must make Joan smile to win, and Joan has to make Amber cry. The arguing is lighthearted and fun for the most part, although Joan’s zingers can sting sometimes. Amber always wins the fights, bringing some much needed joy to the residents.
Amber also spends time with Private Jackson, a reclusive Vietnam War veteran whom she met after a school project. Jackson, who spends his days with his dog and writing haikus, reluctantly allowed Amber into his life after her dog bonded with his. She won him over by sending him haikus about her dog. Now they often let their dogs play in the park and will sip green tea together, even though she does not like the taste.
Amber tries to remain optimistic, praying to God to help her mother and to find them a home, but everyday setbacks begin to take their toll. When her mother is brutally murdered, Amber shuts down completely. Donna is horrified to discover that Amber has been living in a school bus and immediately files to have legal guardianship of her. She renovates a bedroom in her house and makes it Amber’s.
Amber sinks into depression, losing her faith because, after all, what kind of God would allow a monster to kill her mother? Father Chee comes over every day to sit with her. If she wants to talk, he talks with her, but if she stays in her bed, he prays for her. Old Man Linder, one of her friends from the nursing home, comes over and tries to offer Amber his condolences, but she is rude to him and sends him away in tears.
Her friend Ty tries to convince her to go to an ice cream shop with the Five, but she refuses. He tells her he will not shave until she comes out for sundaes with them again. After an emotional talk with Father Chee, in which he admits he put too much pressure on her to come out of her depression so his faith would be strengthened, he agrees not to come again unless she asks for him.
Amber remains secluded in the house until one night Donna admits that Bobby Big Boy is ill and must be taken to the veterinarian. The vet confirms that Triple B has a tumor, but he will only know if it is cancerous if he performs surgery. Amber insists she must be the one to pay for it and so signs a payment form before she leaves her dog overnight so he can have the operation in the morning.
On the way home, Amber asks Donna to drop her off at Private Jackson’s house. As they sip green tea, Amber breaks down and cries. For the first time, Jackson sits next to her and hugs her as she sobs. In another first, he writes a haiku that is not about something true, but about something he hopes will happen.
Her need to help Triple B motivates Amber back to the living, and she returns to school. She asks Mr. Franks and the Franks Force Five to help her put on a talent show to raise money. They agree, but only if she will let them do the organizing. The boys take off with the idea; soon the whole school wants to be involved. Amber gets the KDFCs to perform with Door Woman Lucy as their lead singer as she has a band. Amber also persuades Mr. Linder to sing as well. She is thrilled when the vet informs her that Bobby Big Boy’s tumor was benign and he can come home.
On the night of the talent show, Amber wears the prom dress she made in Life Skills class so she can look nice as the emcee. She is shocked when she arrives to see that the whole school and most of the town has turned out. Even Private Jackson comes, and she gives him a seat next to Donna. The show is a phenomenal success with Lucy and the KDFCs bringing down the house. As the finale, they announce how much money was raised. Amber needed about $3,000 for Triple B’s procedure. They raised over $200,000 for her college fund. In addition, Joan of Old and some of the other residents of the nursing home have written Amber into their wills so that she will have enough to pay for her college and law school.
The outpouring of love and support continue to help Amber heal from her grief. In a final act, she has her friend Ty take her to visit her mother’s murderer. While the man stares at her from behind the glass and tries to get her to speak to him, she merely holds up a haiku that celebrates her choice to live, and live with hope. As they leave the prison, she gives Ty a present, a razor. She helps him shave his beard, and then they pick up their friends and celebrate with ice-cream shop sundaes.