Monday, 17 June 2013

Carnegie shortlist review - Wonder by RJ Palacio

When ten-year-old August Pullman’s parents decide to send him off to school after a lifetime of home learning, it’s not just August who has a lot to deal with.

His school colleagues are also challenged by how to deal with this person with a facial disfigurement August himself describes thus: ‘Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.’

One of the real strengths of this book is the way it looks at the story from so many different points of view. If any society is judged it on how it deals with its weakest members, then it's the thoughts and ideas of everyone who is affected by the challenges posed by the arrival of August at the school, that makes this story so special.

Whether it’s the boy who befriends him, and then has to choose when he starts to get shunned by everyone else, to the sister, who has to negotiate high school and boyfriends when the thing she is best known for is her disabled brother, to the family who start a campaign to exclude August from the school because he is ‘special needs’, it is a mesmerising dissection of modern society.

This is one of those books that makes it clear that children read books for many different reasons – it’s not all about escapism – reading books is a great way to develop empathy, find out about how people other than yourself are coping with life.

All kids have to learn to negotiate school in their own way and this is a real stop-and-think story – about how seriously tough it is for some kids to get through even the normal things most of us take for granted.

For all the people who loved this book – a perhaps surprising number of reluctant reader boys – it’s actually quite disappointing as a bookseller not to be able to offer to follow it up with much in the ‘If you loved Wonder you’ll like this’ vein. 

It has made me anticipate that this could well be the sort of genre-busting novel that sparks a whole series of imitators, rather like Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time’.

This has been our go-to recommend for over a year now for those children who come through the door not particularly interested in blockbusting action and are looking for a more thoughtful, characterful read.

So from a bookseller point of view it’s really great to have on the Carnegie list a book that has such popular, broad and commercial appeal – no mean feat for a book whose main theme is about a tough subject.

To me as a bookseller it really goes to show that kids love books about the big stuff – life, death and everything in between. There might be plenty around for teens, but most real life books that deal with the emotional side of life tend to focus on friendship and family and aimed primarily at girls.

So why has ‘Wonder’ worked so well?

Of course the other good things about this book are that it is well-written, intelligent and emotionally engaging, with great characters. It also has the sort of upbeat ending that can have kids cheering. It’s the sort of book that can give kids the courage to make a difference.

As an adult I couldn’t help but fear for all the real-life Auggies out there – but the ones who can’t get through school being super-bright, haven’t got such a well-developed sense of humour, such delightfully supportive parents and a school that has such caring teachers.

But for a sheer read that engages on a different level for most books in this age group, this has got to be not just one of the best books of the year, but one of the best books ever.

This may be our Last Carnegie Review, but our coverage is still going, come back tomorrow to find out who we think is going to win! 

And don't forget to enter our Big Fat Carnegie Giveaway just e-mail with your name and address, and 'Carnegie' in the header.

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