Friday, January 31, 2014

Born to stand out

While I like to think I'm above judging a book by its cover, I do put some store by the jacket copy.

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, is not the kind of book I ever would've considered picking up on my own, for me or my child. I'm all for overcoming adversity, and most novel plots play on some variation of this theme, but reading about overcoming physical adversity (as opposed to, say, character flaw — and I recognize that a good book, which this is, will still incorporate all that fine moral, social, character stuff regardless) generally isn't my thing.

But eleven years on, I am still hopeless at gauging my daughter's tastes.

She received Wonder back in November, and over several weeks I'd been reading it aloud to her at bedtime.

August Pullman was born with severe facial deformities. Because of his health and all the surgeries he'd undergone, he was homeschooled. But at age 10 he enters fifth grade at a mainstream school, where he learns all about the real world of the social politics kids play at. This, compounded by the fact that he has the kind of face that makes people scream, shudder, turn away. Born to stand out, and sometimes invisible because of it. But he makes some true friends, and ultimately the entire school rallies around him.

The novel starts from Auggie's perspective, but it switches between several narrators, including Auggie's sister and some of his friends. This helps keep the story fresh, unpredictable, and moving swiftly through the school year.

It's all told with a light touch — it's funny and deeply affecting. And when Auggie's dog dies, Helena and I were in tears (I think reading it aloud made me feel it more intensely); we had to skim over a couple pages.

Books with "serious" subject matter, aimed at kids, I think run the risk of moralizing too much. For my taste, it could've been a tad more subtle: For example, one teacher at the beginning of every months presents precepts for consideration, which are nothing if not hitting you over the head with a life lesson. But coming from a teacher, these were more natural and easier to swallow than if they'd come from the narrator, or even a parent. That said, Helena was unfazed, and didn't detect any preachiness at all. (And to be fair, many of the precepts come from the likes of Virgil, Confucius, Pascal.)

Helena rates it four and half stars out of five, and is hoping for a sequel. It's a book we continue to talk about well after having turned the final page. Consider it recommended for that age set.

The open call (now closed) for postcard precepts on the author's website indicates that another book is in the works, but there's no indication how it will relate to Wonder.

Book trailer.

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