R. J. Palacio
Just how does a grown-ass man find himself laid low by a book written for children, reduced, repeatedly, to puddles? Why is he even reading such a book in the first place?
I’d say these are mysteries but that’s not true. The answer to the second question is mundane; to the first it’s as fundamental as things in life get.
In the beginning, there was the book, assigned to my fifth grade daughter’s class. Though a generally good student, and an ardent reader, Miss AHC was struggling with the novel–or so her quiz scores suggested.
That’s when her ever-helpful mother offered a solution: your father is a fast reader, he’ll read it and work with you. “Sure,” I thought, “it’s not like I’ve anything going on. Just a stack of final projects to grade and end of semester paperwork. ” Secretly, I hoped everyone would forget.
Fat chance. The book appeared a day later, the mother having helpfully stopped by the local library. So I dug in, fighting the story at first until insomnia came calling and Wonder lay close at hand, ready to fill the long, empty hours before dawn.
So I read the tale of August Pullman, known to all as Auggie, a New York kid about to enter fifth grade when we meet him. You can see the wheels turning in the teacher’s head, can’t you?
The Pullmans live in an “upper, upper Manhattan” neighborhood that’s equal parts Upper West Side and Washington Heights–New York movie geography for the printed page, noticeable only to locals.
This could be any old coming of age story except for one thing: Auggie was born with a genetic defect, a “…’previously unknown type of mandibulofacial dysotosis…complicated by a hemifacial microsomia characteristic of OAV spectrum.” What that means is that Auggie is no ordinary kid and it’s written all over his face.
More specifically, his face suggests God was having an off day. His mouth is a narrow slit that may run downhill. His eyes sag, resting mid-cheek, where no orbit should be. His ears are withered cauliflower buds. He’s had twenty-seven (!) surgeries since he was born, many of them plastic surgery procedures. Despite it all, Auggie is a sweet smart kid who once wore an astronaut helmet for a couple of years (you can guess why).
Kids, lacking filters, are pretty direct about what they see. Zombie! Monster! Orc! Until now, Auggie’s been home-schooled and it’s probably easy to imagine why. But he’s outgrown what his mother can convey and he has to start engaging with the broader world so he’s been enrolled in Beecher Prep, a nearby private school.
Auggie’s older sister, Olivia, is off to a new school, too. Faulkner–which I’m thinking is Stuyvesant, because it seems public–could easily be one of the borough’s tony prep schools. Via, as she’s known, is the protective but suffering older sibling of a child with visible differences. She loves Auggie, but she has her own stuff to deal with, too.
The story of Auggie’s fifth grade year is narrated in 8 sections attributed to key characters. This Rashomon-like approach allows for a number of voices almost all belonging to kids.
In fact, when adults do show up in their own voices–in an almost intermission-like interlude helpfully located about halfway through the book and school year–it isn’t pretty. It’s not just that we see the parents emerging in the children. It’s that in the flat, unflattering light of email, the squalid pettiness of privileged people becomes apparent.
Auggie encounters all the challenges any kid in a new school faces, and then some. He’s razzed. He’s labelled and cast aside. He finds a friend (he thinks) and then experiences betrayal. He feels the same pain of not fitting in that many another kid experiences. Especially at this time of year, I couldn’t help but wonder why we never learn the lesson of the Island of Misfit Toys.
There are two major conflicts in the course of the school year. The longer, on-going one is the social stigmatization within his fifth grade class. It would be garden-variety kid sh*t if Auggie’s face weren’t so misshapen. That deformation shows the kids’ cruelty for what it is.
The second conflict is physical and occurs during the course of an overnight trip at which other schools are also present. Older kids, from schools in tougher ‘hoods, perhaps, who haven’t had all year to acclimate to Auggie stumble across him and his friend Jack.
Suddenly, it’s September again, only with physical violence. This time, though, Auggie’s other classmates arrive like the cavalry. There’s nothing quite like the attacks of outsiders to solidify group cohesion.
It all works out, how could it not? It’s a book for kids and they’d feel cheated if it didn’t. Teachers get to assign this book and show the movie. They get to discuss bullying. Everybody loves Auggie and feels good.
“Not so fast,” says the blubbering mess in the corner. It would be wrong to reduce this book to a didactic exercise focused on undesirable behavior. There’s a lot more going on here than just the story and you do the author a disservice when you ignore it.
I already mentioned parents. Although they won’t like me saying this, it’s important kids understand that, sometimes, adults are buttheads. Or how about that most basic element of emotional intelligence: a sense of the other? All those points of view don’t just serve up a helping of each person’s truth. They actually showcase the journey beyond kids’ naturally self-centered state of being. And I haven’t even talked about Daisy, the dog, passing on.
And how about just plain kindness? It’s not exactly a subtle message, turning up in the English teacher, Mr. Browne’s, precepts and Headmaster Tushman’s graduation speech. But it’s maybe the most important message–more important even than don’t bully. No less a writer than Henry James said the most important thing is to be kind (it’s also the second and third.) So there’s a lot more here than just the bugaboo of the moment.
None of this explains why I was so stricken, so I’ll get personal. My brother, who died at the age of four (I was five), had Down Syndrome–also a genetic disorder that results in a visibly different face. My earliest memories are marked by the same certain knowledge that Michael required more of my folks’ attention than I did, just as Olivia experienced it.
Like Olivia, I spent copious amounts of time with my grandmother, my second mother–also a live wire like Olivia’s–who, also, died suddenly on me. And though, Nana died 3 and a half years after Michael, I spent the week before I began Kindergarten with her and my grandfather in Montauk, where Olivia visits her Grans before her death. Ten weeks later, Michael was dead. Memories fade but the scars still linger.
So let’s just say I felt like I was in a shooting gallery–triggers everywhere. It was a powerful, unexpectedly painful and yet hopeful read. Even if, for me, it came with more than one good cry.
Happy (belated) Christmas.