Books Like This (meaning books about people who are "different" in one way or another and get loads of acclaim) don't come around very often anymore, and when they do I'm always a bit skeptical. Maybe I'm just scarred by the bad experiences I've had with books that TRIED to get into the heads of really different people and failed to do it right. Or maybe I'm just afraid I'm going to cry too much. In any case, like Anything But Typical and Mockingbird (two of my favorite books in recent memory), Wonder was a book I took one look at, then promptly filled up with feelings of discomfort. (The fact that it wasn't a book about autism but a book about facial disfigurement didn't make a difference.) I thought it would be a manipulative tearjerker that belittled the experience of the truly different, and that bugged me. But the reviews came in and they all tripped over themselves trying to gush about this book. Elizabeth Bird said it was "the one to beat" on her 2013 Newbery Predictions list. Anything that has that kind of press is something that I, a diehard Newbery Prediction junkie, simply cannot resist. So I ran out and bought it, and in three quick reading sessions it became very apparent why this is the book everyone is talking about: It IS that good.
I love books that make me feel something. Preferably the kind of something that leaves me a sobbing empathetic wreck. This is one of those books. In the book's 300-odd pages are events that are so astoundingly cruel that I actually had to put the book down. I was actually so shaken by one event that I became too sad to cry, if you can imagine that. Yet, there are moments that made me cheer and moments that made me laugh out loud, two things I almost never do at books. You'll be dragged all over the place emotionally when you read this and, I think, you won't feel the least bit manipulated.
Truth be told, the book would've been really good even without the multiple points-of-view. The first eighty pages as narrated by Auggie were heartbreaking and moving enough, and the insight was already pretty strong. However, the story REALLY gets going when Via starts narrating, and it doesn't slow down. I don't agree with the reviews that state that some of the narrators were unnecessary. I loved all of these kids. Via, the fiercely protective and serious older sister who tries to break out of her family's solar system, Summer, the devoted friend, Jack, the friend who did wrong but was determined to make it right when he did, Justin, Via's hipster-in-the-making boyfriend (I REALLY liked him, I won't lie... he seemed a little bit of a daydreamer to me and his thing about the universe taking care of everyone reflected that), and Miranda, Via's former best friend and honorary big sister to Auggie, these were all a wonderful group of young people that prove that not every kid is ignorant.
(Side note: I don't think Julian's point-of-view should've been added like so many others do. Perhaps ironically, he would've been a misfit among all of these sweet, caring kids. That, and I absolutely didn't want to hear of any other horrible things his wretch of a mother said or did. Julian has the excuse of being an ignorant ten-year-old boy; his mother does not. Hearing any more from these ugly-on-the-inside people would've marred the book for me.)
Auggie himself is a wonder of protagonist and narrator. In all the Books Like This for the younger set that I've read, no protagonist has come close to being this self-aware and funny. I think if you're different, you HAVE to have a sense of humor about your plight no matter how bad you have it. It's a coping mechanism that works wonders, and it's great to see that he's developed it at such a young age when it takes some people entire lifetimes. It's also great that first-time author Palacio realized that even having a sense of humor about yourself doesn't mean other people can't hurt your feelings with horrible remarks. Finally, the best thing is that Auggie, though being a smart, sweet, and funny kid, still has flaws, like being self-centered. Having saintly protagonists makes a book insulting, and thanks to the skill with which Auggie was created, I don't think he's going to be an insulting character to anyone. He represents the outcast in all of us, but succeeds in being a cool kid in his own right.
Finally, the writing was just amazing. Deceptively simple, I'd say. Short chapters punch at the reader with matter-of-fact emotion. This is a much better tactic than describing the events with poetic metaphors and "gorgeous" writing. That stuff works for certain kinds of books, but it wouldn't have worked here. This is the kind of book that needs to be blunt, direct, and real. Fortunately, it was.
It's relatively early in the year, but this book is the frontrunner for the Newbery Medal already, and it deserves it. It should (and probably will) get the Schneider Award too. It deserves the latter because, quite frankly, this book could've fallen into so many disability book traps that it avoided (that and their picks recently have been... off). And it deserves the former because, frankly, this is a marvelous book that has giant, extremely important things to say about how we should treat each other. No other book this year will be able to top it for me. If you read only one book in 2012, make it Wonder. Thank you, R.J. Palacio.