Vermont where I live has an annual children’s book award chosen by young readers, and this year’s winner is R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a fifth grader with severe facial deformity. The novel is also the focus of this year’s Vermont Reads, a statewide community reading program. I read Wonder on an airplane early this month — and what I most admired, among much to like in a touching and thought-provoking story, is this:
By taking us into the experience of a child whose appearance can seem horrifying, this writer finds a way to do what almost nobody gets away with doing, in YA fiction today: be vulnerably honest about kindness, about decency, about doing the right thing.
I think as YA authors we’re afraid to “go there” too obviously for the same reason that a middle schooler is — because we could get laughed at, scorned, and shunted aside. So we couch our stories and their content in irony and attitude, because that’s what we think is honest — it’s what kids do, right? — and we hope it’s what will connect.
But Wonder concludes with a selection of “Postcard Precepts,” which Auggie Pullman and his classmates have been encouraged over the summer to send to their English teacher, who regularly posted precepts in his classroom. Without giving away a story that’s so much worth reading, these precepts give you a sense of this novel’s plain-hearted openness to values that it presents without a trace of self-insulating irony. Here are a few:
“It’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend.”
“Flowers are great, but love is better.”
“If you can get through middle school without hurting anyone’s feelings, that’s really cool beans.”
When was the last time someone worked a whole YA novel toward notions like this — and not only got away with it, but became a bestseller?
This strikes me as worth noticing. Wonder is a modern-day story built on old-fashioned morality, which all becomes new, brave, and meaningful as we go through the year with Auggie and his classmates. The other kids’ own values are tested, and tried hard, by Auggie’s appearance among them — and by the ways they see each other reacting, and responding.
In real-life adolescence we learn to screen ourselves, to hide what might get us laughed at, or landed at a lunchroom table where no one else will sit. (That’s what happens at first, almost, to Auggie.) But what we learn to hide is so often the deepest parts of who we are, or what we can be. A story that finds a way to break us through all this, to bring us back to what, when we're most honest, we know matters most ... well, that is a story that you expect would feel naive, but only until you’ve actually read Wonder and made it through grade five with Auggie Pullman.
At that point, you’re likely — together with his classmates — to be closer to your tender true self than you’ve felt yourself to be in a very long time.
And that is a literary accomplishment.