"I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go."
Thus begins RJ Palacio's Wonder, an aptly named middle-grade novel that just may be my favorite book of 2012.
And that's saying something, because I've read some fantastic stuff this past year. But Wonder is like nothing else -- funny, heartbreaking, emotional, and absolutely an all-around incredible piece of work. I've seen a lot of hype about this one in the blogosphere, and having just turned the last page, I can tell you that all that high praise is richly deserved.
Wonder is Palacio's debut, and it's hard to know where she'll go from here, because she's definitely set a high mark for herself. The novel tells the story of August "Auggie" Pullman, who is in every way a pretty normal fifth grader, with the usual interests of a boy his age. But there's one thing very, very different about Auggie - he was born with a rare genetic disorder that manifests itself in a "craniofacial abnormality", as his older sister Via describes it. Auggie and his family have spent their lives dealing with Auggie's condition, through multiple surgeries and treatments to the looks and whispered comments from others when they first see Auggie. And the Pullmans have gotten pretty good at handling all of it.
But when Auggie starts fifth grade, his parents decide it's time for real school. No more homeschooling with his mom. Auggie's not sure he's ready, and he's more than a little nervous about how things will go with the other kids. Will he make any friends? Will the other kids ever get past Auggie's face and look at who he really, really is?
Palacio completely nails the experience of being the one who doesn't blend into the crowd. And still, she never makes Auggie a pathetic character or someone to be pitied - far from it. Writing from the point of view of Auggie, as well as several other pivotal characters, she tells Auggie's story as it impacts everyone. His presence at Beecher Prep not only changes Auggie's life, but many other people's as well, in ways that no one could have foreseen when the school year started. The reader begins to understand how Auggie's face serves as a mirror to all those around him; looking at Auggie, you see yourself in unexpected ways. How each character deals with that unexpected reaction provides the narrative drive for the story, and is what makes this an outstanding novel for everyone, not just middle schoolers. I'm hard pressed to think of a book that exemplifies the experience of empathy in such a way, by showing what it looks in real life, not after-school specials.
The center point around which Auggie's story turns is a quote by Wayne Dyer: "When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind." It's one thing to talk to our kids about bullying, about the importance of standing up for others and not joining in with the crowd. It's another to show them what bullying looks like. This is a book that can do that, without preaching or shutting kids down. I know it's one that I'll be reading with Sprout when he's older.
Share Wonder with the kids in your life, but read it yourself first. Auggie Pullman is someone you'll want to know.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Sample: "The thing is, when I was little, I never minded meeting new kids because all the kids I met were really little, too. What's cool about really little kids is that they don't say stuff to try to hurt your feelings, even though sometimes they do say stuff that hurts your feelings. But they don't actually know what they're saying. Big kids, though: they know what they're saying."
Bonus: Hear what inspired the novel, as NPR interviews author R.J. Palacio
Jen Robinson's Book Page
100 Scope Notes
More Than True
Abby the Librarian