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Friday, April 26, 2013

Two reviews of R. J. Palocio's _Wonder_. (I'm conflicted.)

     Okay, let me say first of all that I loved the book Wonder (by R.J. Palacio (2012) New York: Knopf).   Secondly, though, let me say that I understand, I think, why it did not win a Newbery Award last year.  So I really am of two minds about the book.  So I will start out with a paragraph or so telling you why I think you and your middle school or high school students will love this book.  Then you can stop if you want, order the book, read it, and be happy.  But if you want to read on after the image of the book cover, you can find out what I think was the book's Achilles heel.
     The main character,  August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a coincidental combination of unfortunate birth defects.  His eyes are proportionately two low on his head.  He has not external ears, he has a cleft palate and a misshapen nose.  Growing up, Auggie loved Halloween each year because he could wear a mask.  He wore an astronaut;s helmet to the park every day, and his parents end up deciding that he will be homeschooled. 
     As the book opens, though, Auggie is getting ready to go to school for the first time -- Middle School.  In the story that follows, we see Auggie's journey through his eyes, the eyes of his friends, and the eyes of his sister.  Middle school brings equal measures of ridicule, bullying, and friendship; exultation and terror; conquered fears and awkward mistakes; sadness and triumph.  It is a powerful and moving book.  My freshman daughter liked it.  I am betting you will too. 
      It would also be a really effective book to introduce the subject of bullying and unkind behavior to a middle school or high school classroom.  Get hold of Wonder and read it soon.

     And yet....  when I got to the ed of the book I wondered by it hadn't won a Newbery.  I thought about that, then realized that although the ending was emotionally satisfying, it had left a part of me feeling empty.  Took me a couple of days before I figured it out.  The main conflict that is introduced in the book involves a fellow student of Augies who seems to have it in for him.  And in fact, that kid's parents are also pushing for Augie to be put in a different school.  This main conflict develops and is ultimately resolved -- but just about the time when it is really getting cooking and the reader is starting to worry about Augie, that conflict gets replaced by another short-term conflict and when we return to the main conflict, it just sort of evaporates.  Strangely, this doesn't ruin the book, but it does leave one wishing that the author had not dodged the difficult part of the story.  Having said that, Wonder is R.J. Paloacio's first novel, and I for one am really looking forward to seeing what she does next. 

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