Many books have inspired me to be a better writer, but it’s rare that a book inspires me to be a better person. Wonder by R.J. Palacio is just such a rarity.
A free sample copy of the book arrived in my mailbox at school toward the beginning of last school year. This is the second time in my teaching career that such a gift has arrived. (The first time was when I received a copy of Maximum Ride, James Patterson’s first foray into young adult literature.) I’m not sure why some publishers give away free copies to teachers, but quite frankly, it’s a brilliant marketing strategy.
Wonder sat in my classroom all school year. Over time, I started hearing more and more good things about it on Twitter and on other blogs. Then I saw that it made the 2014 Rebecca Caudill list. I recommended to my co-teacher that she put it on the summer reading list because I’d heard so many good things about it. Boy, am I glad I did. I finally read it last week (in one day!), and it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve read in a long time.
Author: R.J. Palacio
Genre: Contemporary realistic fiction
Age group: middle grade
Summary: This is the story of Auggie, a boy born with a very rare syndrome that causes his face to look different than everyone else’s. In fact, he’s so abnormal looking that adults stare and other children have been known to run screaming and crying from him. Numerous surgeries have done little to improve Auggie’s appearance so his parents homeschool him until the fifth grade when they decide it’s time for him to face the world. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict how his classmates will react to his unusual appearance. The book starts in Auggie’s perspective but switches to his sister, his classmates, and even his sister’s boyfriend.
I think this book has appealed to so many people because it’s so truthful. The characters feel like people I’ve met. I’ve certainly met children like the ones Auggie encounters in his new school: the friendly ones, the sometimes friendly ones, the pretend-to-be-friendly-around-adults-but-be-a-jerk-when-alone ones, and the straight-out bullies. And I’ve definitely met similar parents: the really kind ones and the ones that spawn bullies. (One incident in the middle of the book really got to me because it’s a perfect example of parents being bullies toward school administrators and teachers.)
Another reason this book has become so popular is that it speaks about something that we all want more of–kindness. In a lot of kids’ books, we see many children being bratty and obnoxious. In this book, we see some of that, but we also see instances of real kindness, and not the fake sugary kind of kindness that makes you roll your eyes and say, “Oh that would never happen.” Palacio draws such realistic characters, and she shows true insight into how kids think and react to situations.
So how has this book made me want to be a better person and teacher? It’s made me rethink what my curriculum should really be. Yes, I must cover the Common Core Standards. No big deal. We’ve been covering that material in reading and language arts classes for ages. But somewhere in there, maybe overriding all that, we should be teaching kids to be kind. Here’s a great quote from the end of the book when the principal is giving a speech:
“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
Isn’t that a beautiful lesson for kids to learn in a book? Be “a little kinder than is necessary.” And the story is told with such humor and such authentic voices each time the perspective changes, that I think most kids will find it really engaging. I can’t wait to share it with my summer reading class tomorrow!