Tearjerker Alert: WONDER by R.J. Palacio Is a Must-Read!

What is it about books that feature characters who scratch and claw their way through life yet somehow manage to rise above adversity despite seemingly unbeatable odds? Why does reading their stories make me sob—yes, unabashedly sob—with a surprising amount of force and feeling? Why do I hear trumpets sound when even the smallest triumphs are achieved in their lives? And why do I keep thinking about these characters many months, sometimes years later, fully knowing that they are fictional—I repeat—FICTIONAL characters?

It’s because books like these, when they’re written well, not only introduce us to people (or talking, thinking animals) we might relate to or hopefully empathize with, but also remind us of deep-rooted truths about our inner selves. When we read books like R. J. Palacio’s smashing debut novel Wonder, we ask questions like “How would I behave in that situation? Would I be brave enough to stand up on my own? Would I have the courage to go against the grain?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but more often than not, it’s an embarrassing no. It’s why these books are so sticky with resonance—and so unforgettable. They remind us that we are, sometimes regrettably, human.

But enough of my philosophical mumbo-jumbo (for now). Let’s discuss why Wonderis one of the best books for middle-graders I’ve read in a good long while.

It opens with a hard-hitting but plain-spoken introduction to the star of the show—August. He sounds confident. He expresses himself clearly and maturely. He seems like a pretty together kid. So what’s the catch? Apparently, other kids (and adults, mind you) run away screaming whenever they see his disfigured face.  Not long after he was born, doctors diagnosed him with a “previously unknown type of mandibulofacial dysostosis caused by an autosomal recessive mutation in the TCOF1 gene, complicated by a hemifacial microsomia.” His translation: “I won’t describe what I look like.” Even after 27 surgeries, “whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

Rather than hide indoors, August has decided—a choice prompted by his parents’ patient and often wishy-washy prodding—it’s time he attended a real school instead of being homeschooled. Fifth-grade can’t be that hard, can it? But as we adults who have been through (and survived) the Hell that is middle school are well aware, of course it can—especially if you’re considered “different” in any way.

From the minute he steps foot through the school’s swinging front doors, “Auggie” faces the cruelest forms of ridicule. Boys call him unspeakable names. Girls giggle and avoid looking him in the eye. There’s even a rumor that touching him is paramount to getting the Plague. And the fun doesn’t stop there. Some of the snootier parents also get involved. A popular kids’ mother starts an informal campaign to get August evicted from the school (despite the fact that he isn’t a “special needs” kid) and volunteers to Photoshop him out of any class photos for other like-minded, queasy-stomached parents. (Ah, yes. I keep forgetting that some adults never grow up, do they.)

But lest you think Wonder is solely about bullying and feeling empathy for the kid with the malformed face, it isn’t. Possibly because Palacio has worked in publishing (as an art director and jacket designer) for many years and is a mother herself, there are much-needed nuances to this story. Throughout the book, we hear from others who are impacted by Auggie, and the tone isn’t always pretty nor the feelings straightforward. Auggie’s older sister Via, for example, is fed up with being the silent family member, the one always put on the back-burner. Sure, she’s her younger brother’s fiercest defender, but we understand when she doesn’t tell anyone in her new school about her brother because she just wants to see what it feels like to be normal. We also understand when Auggie’s “friend” Jack Will makes an offhand remark to a popular kid he’s trying to impress that he would kill himself if he had to go through life as Auggie. Unbeknownst to Jack, Auggie overhears the conversation, and it takes months of soul-searching—and a suspension—for Jack to realize how wrong he really was.

What makes Wonder such an important read is that it’s not only suitable for kids who are different in some way or who know a peer in school who’s different, but it’s also a powerful teaching tool for parents and educators looking for ways to spark discussions about tolerance and acceptance—to explain it’s not always easy to stand up for what’s right, no matter what adults preach. Some situations take more than a healthy dose of courage and time, and even then things might not work out. What’s that old parenting adage . . . sometimes life isn’t fair?

To read the rest of the post, please visit  Letter Blocks: The B&N Parents and Educators Blog.

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