Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What's in a Face?

Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Wow, I wish this book had existed when I was in 5th grade. It would have been a comfort while dealing with bullies.

This kind of great Young Adult writing has revived my faith in the genre. Last year I read two popular YA novels and I hated them so much that I was ready to swear off the whole damn category. But this book is so lovely and bittersweet that I am glad I gave it a chance.

"Wonder" is the story of 10-year-old August, who was born with a severe facial deformity. This is his introduction:

"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. If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here's what I think: the only reason I'm not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way."

August has been homeschooled until now, but his parents want him to branch out and enroll him in 5th grade. August has a good sense of humor and makes a few friends at school, but most of the students avoid him, and a few are downright mean. The novel follows August through the school year, and there are many ups and downs, which I shan't spoil. By the end of the book, I was a blubbering mess and I couldn't finish reading without wiping my eyes every half-page.

I really liked the writing in "Wonder" -- it's smart and complex for YA, and it didn't dumb down the material. I also liked that it gave different perspectives. Most of the book is told from August's point of view, but we also get to read the thoughts of his sister and of some friends, which fleshed out the story.

One chapter that was especially powerful was about Halloween, which August loves:

"For me, Halloween is the best holiday in the world. It even beats Christmas. I get to dress up in costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me. Nobody knows me. I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks."

Another highpoint (and where I needed several tissues) was August's graduation day. The principal makes a speech referencing a quote from J. M. Barrie:

"'Shall we make a new rule of life ... always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?' ... What a marvelous line, isn't it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed ... what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle-school experience is the knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary -- the world really will be a better place."

It's a wonderful, beautiful little novel. I hope more people give it a chance.

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