By R.J. Palacio
Read Nov 2017
It’s easy to understand why this book was on the New York Times bestseller list for 80 weeks (36 in #1 position), sold 1 million copies (print and digital) within 18 months of its release, and is now a movie with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as Auggie’s parents. The sad, funny, and uplifting story is about a 10 year old boy with an unusual syndrome causing him to experience 27 surgeries just to get to a face that everyone turns away from when they first see it. “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” His parents have decided he should move from home schooling to attending a real school now that he’s ready to start 5th grade, the first year of middle school in their area (“the hippy-stroller capital of Upper Manhattan”). He’s more than reluctant but a part of him knew he should go so he does. It’s a very tough school year but he makes it through with grace. In the words of his principal his “quiet strength has carried up the most hearts”.
Palacio tells the story through very short but compelling chapters in eight sections through the voices of Auggie (August), Via (Auggie’s sister who is starting high school), Summer (Auggie’s new friend who befriends him on her own), Jack (initially Auggie’s buddy at the bequest of the principal but turns into a real friend after a difficult incident), Justin (Via’s new boyfriend), and Miranda (Via’s best friend forever until returning from summer camp just before they start high school). Palacio does well in giving each of them believable voices that will certainly engage a younger reader but that draws in the adult reader as well.
The picture the children’s voices paint includes Auggie’s committed but imperfect parents seeking to help him make his way in the world in the face of not knowing what is the right course. Their willingness to take action despite discomfort is a great model for all. Mr. Tushman (a nice comedic touch that both the characters and the readers enjoy) is clearly well meaning and committed to Auggie’s success . He makes some good choices and some not so good choices in finding buddies to support Auggie’s assimilation into the school—again teaching that no adult, thus no human, is perfect but we must do the best we know how to do. We are privy to confusing and sometimes painful choices and events in each character’s life as they grow as middle and high school students. We cheer their good choices and wince at some poorer choices and are relieved that they help each other through some really difficult situations.
Palacio uses the device of the 5th grade graduation event and corresponding speech from Mr Tushman to deliver her most important message: “If every single 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.” I don’t read many (any?) books that have this message and I’m glad I got to read this one and enjoy the way Palacio did it.