Book Reviews

Palacio, R. J. Wonder. Knopf, 2012 [320p]
Library ed. ISBN 978-0-375-96902-7 $18.99
Trade ed. ISBN 978-0-375-86902-0 $15.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-0-375-89988-1 $10.99

Reviewed from galleys R Gr. 5-7

Middle school is tough for just about everybody, but it’s going to be a particular challenge for new fifth-grader Auggie Pullman; Auggie has been homeschooled all his life, and he has a genetic disorder that makes his face a stare-drawing anomaly. He makes a couple of friends, but he’s also a key figure in the intense social dramas of middle school (there’s a secret but widespread game about the horror of touching Auggie, and a friend’s loyalty to him divides the boys into factions based on their willingness to ostracize Auggie by proxy). Despite the ups and downs, though, Auggie negotiates what turns out to be a surprisingly successful fifth-grade year. What lifts this book above the ordinary mainstreaming drama is its shifting viewpoints, with sections narrated by Auggie’s classmates, his older sister, and her friends as well as by Auggie himself. The result is a gently told yet perceptive study of the way societal difference sends ripples through a group. Characterization is generally credibly complex, believably depicting the moral frailty of kids at an age where they’re just discovering the savage power of the group and offering some insight into what enables some classmates to withstand the pressure to reject Auggie. The changing dynamics are particularly shrewdly observed, as followers tire of one-note extremists, and an attack by outsiders (Auggie is bullied on a multi-school outing) elicits group solidarity in a way that thoughtfulness never could. This is bursting with possibilities for classroom discussion, but it’ll also provide compelling insight for everybody who has ever felt different—in other words, everybody.  DS

Palacio, R. J. (author).
Feb. 2012. 320p. Knopf, hardcover, $15.99 (9780375869020); library edition, $18.99 (9780375969027). Grades 5-8.

REVIEW.  First published February 1, 2012 (Booklist).

Kids’ books about befriending somebody “different” could fill a library. But this debut novel rises to the top through its subtle shifting of focus to those who are “normal,” thereby throwing into doubt presumptions readers may have about any of the characters. Nominally, the story is about 10-year-old August, a homeschooled boy who is about to take the plunge into a private middle school. Even 27 operations later, Auggie’s face has what doctors call “anomolies”; Auggie himself calls it “my tiny, mushed-up face.” He is gentle and smart, but his mere physical presence sends the lives of a dozen people into a tailspin: his sister, his old friends, the new kids he meets, their parents, the school administrators—the list goes on and on. Palacio’s bold move is to leave Auggie’s first-person story to follow these increasingly tangential characters. This storytelling strategy is always fraught with peril because of how readers must refresh their interest level with each new section. However, much like Ilene Cooper’s similarly structured Angel in My Pocket (2011), Palacio’s novel feels not only effortless but downright graceful, and by the stand-up-and-cheer conclusion, readers will be doing just that, and feeling as if they are part of this troubled but ultimately warm-hearted community. — Daniel Kraus

Horn Book Magazine:
by R. J. Palacio
Intermediate Knopf 316 pp.
2/12 978-0-375-86902-0 $15.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-96902-7 $18.99
e-book ed. 978-0-375-89988-1 $15.99
“The universe was not kind to Auggie Pullman.” Auggie was born with a facial anomaly: his face sags; his eyes are asymmetrical, below the expected placement, and bulging; his oversized nose protrudes; and he lacks ears, eyebrows, eyelashes, and cheekbones. Having been homeschooled all his life, this fifth-grader is now entering school for the first time—going, as his dad says, “like a lamb to the slaughter.” Auggie is used to people looking away, or even recoiling, when they see him, and he’s well aware of some of the names he’s called: “Rat boy. Freak. Monster. Freddy Krueger. E.T. Gross-out. Lizard face. Mutant.” First novelist Palacio shows readers Auggie’s feelings and, in various chapters from multiple narrators (his sister and various classmates, for example), how others react to him. But there’s also a lot of telling; as in, we’re told Auggie is a lot of fun. What we’re shown is that he makes a host of self-depreciating remarks, but these comments don’t a fun guy make, and they render his characterization fairly one-dimensional. As Auggie seeks friends, we are told how desperately he wants them but little, beyond being the object of kindness, of what he might offer in return. Still, this novel is a heartbreaker, and one that for many readers may redefine bravery in the face of adversity. BETTY CARTER

Reprinted from The Horn Book Magazine [or Guide, as applicable] by permission of The Horn Book, Inc., www.hbook.com

School Library Journal:
 PALACIO, R. J. Wonder. 314p. Knopf. Feb. 2012. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-375-86902-0; PLB $18.99. ISBN 978-0-375-96902-7; ebook $10.99. ISBN 978-0-375-89988-1. LC number unavailable.

Gr 4-7–Due to a rare genetic disorder, Auggie Pullman’s head is malformed, his facial features are misshapen, and he has scars from corrective surgery. After much discussion and waffling, he and his parents decide it’s time for him to go to a regular school for the fifth grade instead of being homeschooled. All his life Auggie has seen the shocked expressions and heard the whispers his appearance generates, and he has his coping strategies. He knows that except for how he looks, he’s a normal kid. What he experiences is typical middle school–the good and the bad. Meanwhile, his beautiful sister is starting high school and having her own problems. She’s finding that friendships change and, though it makes her feel guilty, she likes not being labeled as Auggie’s sister. Multiple people tell this story, including Auggie, two of his new school friends, his sister, and his sister’s former best friend. Palacio has an exceptional knack for writing realistic conversation and describing the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Everyone grows and develops as the story progresses, especially the middle school students. This is a fast read and would be a great discussion starter about love, support, and judging people on their appearance. A well-written, thought-provoking book.–Nancy P. Reeder, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, Columbia, SC


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