On the magic of literature: How can a couple light sentences about an eleven year-old boy stressing over the carefully combed part in his hair be so wrenching? Meet one of my top three fictional characters of the year, smart, funny, fifth-grader Auggie Pullman, previously home-schooled, who is beginning to understand the complex social mores of middle school. "You kind of get known for what you're into, and you have to be careful about stuff like that," he says after listing the defining characteristics of several classmates. To that end, he decides he needs a plain new sleeping bag for the big class trip because he definitely doesn't want to be known for Star Wars geekdom. It's all very believable and again a little heartbreaking because obviously what Auggie is known for is his severely deformed face. The doctor fainted when he was born. Twenty-seven surgeries later, his appearance still makes strangers gasp, or recoil, or tease, or, as he says, "do that look-away thing." Little kids cry but Auggie realizes little kids don't know what they're doing; older kids, they know exactly what they're doing. He makes several nice friends but his nemesis is the worst sort: slyly mean. And school parents! One mom photoshops Auggie out of the class picture and offers the revised version to other families so that no one has to look at him. Wonder [Kindle] is a YA first novel that could go wrong in a hundred ways and avoids them all. The book isn't about his face. It isn't even about being different. It's about kindness and mistakes and perseverance. It's about being friends then ex-friends then friends again. It's about a classwide super-feud and a year in the life of a normal family.
Wisely, R.J. Palacio divides the narrative among seven or eight sympathetic characters: Auggie, his older sister Via, her best friend, his best friends. Not all of the voices are equally successful (Via's boyfriend is a weak spot), but the different slants of perspective are revelatory. Of course the lasting achievement is how deeply readers get into Auggie's point of view. It feels just as natural when his biggest worry is how to part his hair and the one time he cries on his Star Wars bed and asks, "Mommy, why do I have to be so ugly?" Wonder is highly recommended for two groups: 1. folks who like to read great books and 2. anyone who ever thought they had a problem.
Book people already know and admire R.J. Palacio for the sublime dust jackets she's created, including much-imitated sensations like John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure and Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, under her real name, Raquel Jaramillo. As a full-time art director and married mom of two boys, how did she find time for Wonder? She went to bed every night at 10:00, woke up at midnight, wrote for two or three hours, and went back to sleep until morning. Published last year by Knopf, the result is a #1 NYT bestselling phenomenon now in its 33rd printing.