E read a lot of books this summer. A whole lot. I think she could sustain her own book review column here if I let her. Many of the books she read this summer were old books of mine that my mom let her dig through and claim. I was okay with that because we finally have bookshelves to put them on. Her shelves of old paperbacks are now stacked two deep, lots of Nancy Drew and The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High books. Those kind of books feel like summer books to me - easy to pick up and read in one lazy sitting. She raced through the stacks without complaint - she loved them. But in between those easy reads were some really, really good reads. "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio was the best of them.
I bring this book up now because yesterday afternoon I heard that this book is the September book pick for NPR's Backseat Book Club, and I couldn't be more excited. This is the book E is choosing to give to her school library for her birthday book this month, and I think it's a book that should be on every fifth grade shelf.
We picked up a copy just before Memorial Day weekend, and she started reading it in the car on the way to visit my parents. Later that evening I picked it up from the side of her bed to read a few pages before falling asleep. Except I didn't read a few pages, I read half the book. For the rest of the weekend we fought over the book, bartering for chapters and reluctantly passing the book back and forth.
"Wonder" is about a boy named August who is about to start the fifth grade in a new school after being homeschooled his whole life. He begins his story by telling us that he isn't going to describe his face because the reality of his facial deformities are far worse than he could convey in words. His parents and his sister have protected him throughout his life, sheltering him from as much cruelty and as many questions as they can, but now he's ready to do more and learn more than he can at home. At the beginning of the book it is August speaking, but later others narrate for awhile - his older sister, his friends, his new schoolmates. His parents and the administrators at his new school do their very best to make this a smooth transition, but it's a tough one.
The book follows August and those around him through the school year. The book is slow to describe the enormity of August's deformities; you are well into the story before you understand the severity of them, and the vast amount of surgeries that he has endured in his short life. This tentative approach to revealing physical descriptions early in the book really allows the reader to get to know August at a deeper level - you feel as comfortable with him as his immediate family is. When the book's narration shifts to new acquaintances, their descriptions are much more blunt and shocking. Both E and I agreed that it helped us understand and sympathize with August as he took this incredibly brave step to leave the protection of his home and venture out into the world of school hallways and classrooms and fifth grade relationships.
Here's E's book review: Wonder is an awesome book - in some parts you want to laugh until you cry, and in some you will cry until you laugh. In every chapter there is a different person telling about their perspective with August. Throughout the story he: goes to school for the first time, tries to meet new friends, goes on a special field trip that might change his life.
My teaser is: August is a normal boy - almost. He is going to school for the first time, but nobody seems to like him. Will it all change with one special field trip or will he stay the new kid forever?
At its core, it's a story about reactions and words. It isn't always possible to temper our reactions to new and different people around us, but the words we choose to follow that initial reaction with are so important. Words of compassion, words of friendship, words of fear, and especially those words that we speak when we think no one is listening - those are the things that define us, and show us what it means to be a true friend, even when it's not easy or comfortable. August has a teacher that begins each month by writing words on the blackboard - a precept for the class - and he encourages the students to add their own words to his. I loved this book's journey from the start of school to the end. Several weeks after I finished the book I was still thinking about it, and I realized what a fitting name "August" was for a boy that changed the direction of his own life, and the school around him, in that very month. There is a certain amount of courage required each August when a new school year comes around; arming our children with the words they need to be a good friend to others is a pretty important component of their back-to-school arsenal.
"Wonder" is an excellent book for children in the fifth grade, but I think even third and fourth graders could read and understand this book. It's also a great read for older children - and certainly has some themes that directly relate to the middle school experience. Even adults will enjoy and appreciate this book. I recommend reading it alongside your children, and then discussing it together.
I also recommend NPR's Backseat Book Club, and am using their Backseat Bookshelf recommendations for E.
Find these titles at your favorite local independent bookstore. Happy reading!