21 July 2014

15 out of 50: Wonder

As I've mentioned before, this year's reading challenge is not going too well for me. I've just finished my 15th book of the year last week but I am still way behind my reading schedule for the rest of the year.  I have been making more of an effort to read and have been trying to read books I am actually interested in, but it has still been pretty slow going.

I finished Wonder by R. J. Palacio last Tuesday and I loved it. August Pullman is starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, but unlike the other kids in his class, navigating a new school isn't the only thing that has him worried about his new school. August was born with a facial deformity that required many surgeries just about every year since he was born, preventing him from attending public school. 
Palacio lets August tell most of the story, but throughout the school year, we see events through the eyes of Summer (the girl who befriends him at lunch on the first day of school), Jack Will (the boy who gives August a tour of the school at the request of the principal and later befriends August), Via (August's older sister), and Miranda (family friend). I love that Palacio gives each character a unique voice and a different writing style when they take over the narrative. 

Yes, it's a coming of age story. I mean, what YA/teen book isn't? That is half the reason why I love the genre. The characters are always learning something vital about people, growing up and life (and of course, by extension, you as the reader learn those lessons as well).  But is so much more than just a coming of age story. It addressed the problems that disabled people face every single day. It holds a mirror up to society and shows us that even when we think people can't see us react, poke fun or otherwise be rude human beings to other human beings, WE ARE WRONG. They know. And to go a bit further, they are fully aware of who they are and how they look. August describes how people react to him a couple of times in this book as the "look-away thing": when they look at him, notice his deformity and quickly look away. He hates when people do that. 

As a society, I think that is all we do. We look away from people who look or act differently than we do. I think, partially, we think we are being kind by not staring, as if we are can ascribe dignity to someone by ignoring them. We are embarrassed, sometimes, for the person with a disability. Why is that? Maybe it's because they don't look normal. Okay. But that begs the question, what is normal and why is it the golden standard for living? 

Palacio makes the distinction part way through the book that August has a facial deformity but is not "disabled, handicapped, nor developmentally delayed in any way." I think too often people assume that if one part of a person is "broken," the rest of that person is broken too. August is a bright child. He does well in all of his classes. He isn't stupid. We make these assumptions about people with Autism or people who are deaf, I think. Even if people are any of those things that August is not (disabled, handicapped or developmentally delayed), they are so much more than just the disability. Maybe that is the point Palacio is trying to make with this book. People are people, first and foremost. Past that, they might be short or tall, fat or skinny, average or developmentally disabled. People are the sum of their parts, not just a single thing. 

Let's get away from generalities. I am guilty of this thing that August hates: the look-away thing. I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it is an effort not to stare, maybe it is more than that. This book has challenged me to see people for the whole, not the parts. It has helped me understand, as far as the author was able to represent the perspective of one child with a facial deformity, the struggles that people with physical disabilities/deformities face every day. It has revealed my small minded view of people who look different than me and has challenged me to view other as whole beings, humans who have been created uniquely for a purpose.

Mr. Browne is the English teacher at Beecher Prep. Every month, he writes a precept on the board and challenges his students to understand it and apply it to their lives. If the lesson of this book could be summed up in a single sentence, I think his precept for September would be the sentence I choose: When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind -- Dr. Wayne W. Dyer.

Have you read Wonder? What did you think? What book have you read recently that has challenged the way you see the world? 

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