Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Facing It: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I have an XBox. I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.

I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.

The Universe has not been kind to Auggie Pullman.

Auggie just wants to be a face in the crowd. One no one notices.

But with his face, the one he was born with, even after 27 surgeries, he stops ordinary people in their tracks, staring, giving him "the look." Even the doctor who delivered Auggie fainted.

August has been home-schooled through fourth grade to shield him from the looks he gets whenever he goes in public. When he was younger, his sister Via's friend Miranda gave him an astronaut helmet, and for two years, he wore it all the time. For obvious reasons, Halloween is the best day of the year for Auggie.

But his mom feels that fifth grade, the beginning of middle school in his town, is the best time to start at a real school. "It's his reality," she explains to his dad, and she persuades a very reluctant Auggie to go along with the plan. Two weeks before school begins, his parent want him to meet the principal. And his name cracks up Auggie and his parents.

"Mr. Tushman?" I said.

"He's the principal," said his mother.

"Mr. Tushman?"

"Can you believe that name, Auggie? I mean, who on earth would admit to a name like Mr. Tushman?" said Dad.

"You should go to that school just so you can hear his name said over the loudspeaker!" Dad said excitedly. "Paging Mr. Tushman!" faking a fake old-lady voice. "Hi, Mr. Tushman. I see you're running a little behind today. Did your car get rear-ended again? What a bum rap!"

"Who's Mr. Tushman?" Via said groggily. She'd just woken up.

"He's the principal of my new school," I answered.

Auggie goes, and it's as bad as he feared. One boy, Jack Will, is decent and shows him around, and a girl named Summer joins him as he sits alone at his table in the cafeteria, but a kid named Julian seems to think it's mega-cool to talk about the way he looks right in front of him. Auggie notices that no one will touch him or anything he has touched, and soon Julian and his friends begin the "Plague War," sticking mean notes in his and Jack's locker and doing everything they can to embarrass him and isolate Jack and Summer. Rat Boy, Freddie Kreuger, E.T., Gross Out, Mutant, the notes read.

Then, in homeroom on Halloween, disguised as The Scream, Auggie quietly sits down close to a mummy and a Darth Sidious, and as they talk, he realizes they must be Jack and Julian, talking about him.

"Why do you hang out with him so much?" asked Darth Sidous.
"I don't know," answered the mummy.  "Tushman asked me to hang out with him and he must've told all the teachers to put us next to each other in all classes or something.  I mean, the thing is, he always follows me around."
"Just ditch him," said Julian.
"I've thought about this a lot," said Jack, "and I really think... if I looked like him, seriously, I think that I'd kill myself."

Auggie slips out of the room, physically sick to his stomach, crying, and tells the nurse he's got a virus and goes home. Getting through the rest of the year, getting through the rest of his life, seem unendurable.

But the Universe has some surprises ahead for August Pullman, in P. J. Palacio's celebrated, best-selling debut novel, Wonder (Random House, 2012). Getting to that happy ending for Auggie is an example of the high art of fiction writing, one blessed with extraordinary, yet believable, character development and believable story construction, one which takes on all the big themes--friendship, self-worth, bullying, and especially abundant courage and the grace of human kindness--as he finishes fifth grade with a courage that transforms his classmates as well. How the author does that in page-turning and heartfelt prose is a revelation relevant to adults as well as to its target readers. With starred reviews all around, best-of-the-year-list honors, and kudos from his fellow writers, Wonder is a wonder, that rare book that does it all.

Auggie's teacher has a "Precept of the Month" and he asks his students to send him a postcard during the summer with their own precept of the year.

Jack Will's Precept: Keep calm and carry on!--some saying from World War II.
Summer Dawson's Precept: If you can get through middle school without hurting anyone's feelings, that's really cool beans.
Julian Alban's Precept: Sometimes it's good to start over.
August Pullman's Precept: Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life, because we all overcome the world.

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