The Heartbreaking YA Book All Parents Should Read

wonderLast week, I headed to the bookstore to find a selection of children’s etiquette books. My mission was to write a roundup review of kid-friendly publications dealing with modern manners, but, as serendipity would have it, none of the books I’d researched were in stock. Instead, I found myself thumbing mindlessly through a stack of young adult bestsellers, and it wasn’t long before the etiquette gods revealed themselves in a bright blue copy of Wonder by R.J. Palacio—a middle school reading selection that had me hooked by the second paragraph and crying by the third. And a book that teaches the only social behavior we really need to know: kindness.

Wonder‘s primary character, August Pullman, is a 10-year-old who, because of a severe facial deformity, has never before attended a mainstream school. After years of surgeries and homeschooling, his parents finally encourage him in the summer before he turns 11, to consider Beecher Prep middle school for the fall. August reluctantly agrees to give it a try and with his enrollment, we readers are privy to the devastating lows and delirious highs of his fifth grade year—a year marked by rejection and ridicule, pain and perseverance, transformation and triumph.

Though the first and last parts of the book are told in August’s voice (and Palacio absolutely nails boy-speak), throughout we hear first-person accounts from his protective older sister Via, his fearless friends Summer and Jack, and both Via’s boyfriend Justin and best friend Miranda. In this way, Palacio deftly buffers August’s perspective with that of those who love him most, which gives us the opportunity to walk in many pairs of shoes—ultimately knowing what it’s like to be an outsider and someone who cares for one.

As a parent, I found Wonder to be an immediate tearjerker. The cards August has been dealt are tragic indeed—it’s one of a parent’s worst nightmares realized in print. Yet Palacio somehow makes what could be a sob story into a page-turner, gracing her characters with believable doses of humor and humanity and providing her tale with well-portioned levity and momentum that help see readers through to the end of the book—where joy with a capital “J” wins out over despair.

What’s even more remarkable about the book is that it appeals to almost everyone, regardless of age or gender. With just one casual Facebook prompt, I immediately heard passionate reviews from parents and teachers, administrators and students, men and women, and boys and girls about how much Wonder has meant to them. In this way, it reminds me of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—a cross-generational success about life at its most raw and beautiful.

Here are just a few reviews sent to me by kids the same age as main character August:

“I read this book seven times. I can relate to Auggie, because I know how it feels when people are not nice to me at first but then they get used to me and are more nice to me. Different people tell the story in different parts, and that’s a really good way to make a story, because it’s from lots of characters’ perspectives. I thought it was sort of sad but mostly happy.” —Cameron, fifth grade

Wonder was a very inspiring story. The main character faced many problems because of how he looked. People made fun of him, but his friends stuck by his side. It made me think about what I would do if I was in his place. Best of all, it had a happy ending. That’s what I liked about Wonder.” —Gus, fifth grade

“The book Wonder is definitely the best book I’ve read all summer. I loved how the author wrote the story from each character’s point of view. I thought that was very creative.” —Kate, sixth grade

It’s no wonder that Wonder is fast becoming required reading by many middle schools nationwide—it’s sure to become a new coming-of-age classic. I heartily recommend picking this book up (along with two boxes of Kleenex) if you want your world changed for the better. I give Wonder five out of five standing ovations and an “A” in manners.

Have you read Wonder? Do you want to now?

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  • Wayne McCoy

    I loved this book because it didn’t deal with pity. I also appreciated getting other character’s viewpoints during the story. Well written and deserves all the acclaim it is getting. – Wayne, 44th grade

  • Patricia Doutriaux

    Yes, I want to read this book now. It’s a little mixed, though, because this review has piqued my interest, but the anticipation that I, as a parent, will find it to be a tearjerker is stopping me from going out to get it right now.

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