It’s not surprising (not to me, at least) that young people are still reading books like Judy Blume’s Fudge series, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Jungle Book. But in this fast moving age, what’s the secret that sent a Middle Grades novel by an unknown author climbing onto the New York Times bestseller list and staying there for 80 weeks? I think Wonder succeeded for the same reasons that put books of the past on the road to success —a sympathetic main character with a big problem that he or she alone can solve. Though designated Middle Grade, my guess is plenty of adults have read this book. Popular authors like Rick Riordan and Neil Gaiman gave it five stars for the authenticity of its characters and emotional power. This is a real coup for first time author, R.J. Palacio.
Wonder, aimed at 8 to 12 year olds, tells the story of August, a boy with a facial deformity who’s been home- schooled up until the book opens. Now he’s scheduled to enter the fifth grade of a nearby school and he’s scared. The book starts in Augie’s viewpoint, but later chapters are written through the eyes of his older sister Via, a fifth grade boy called Jack, Via’s boyfriend Justin, Via’s friend Miranda, and a fifth grade girl named Summer. This technique is mostly successful, though occasionally the changes are distracting.
Augie has spent his childhood having a series of medical interventions designed to make his face less startling, but it still draws plenty of attention. He has a warm and protective home life and part of him doesn’t want to leave that safety zone and venture out where others can hurt him. Perhaps the most endearing thing about Augie is that, behind his frightening face, he’s just a regular boy. That’s why he loves Halloween because he can put on a mask and run through the streets looking like everyone else. He says nobody thinks of him as ordinary except himself.
Palacio knows a lot about kids. She knows that most mean well, but can be awkward and afraid to step outside of the pack. She knows that some are just plain mean. A theme running through the book that is stressed by teachers and the author, is the importance of kindness. When Augie leaves the protection of his loving family, he’s on his own. You might want to read this book and see how he does.