Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Wonder
by R.J. Palacio

Knopf, 2012

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The verdict: A memorable portrait of human dignity—children’s literature that knows kids are smart enough to understand the world they live in.

So why add another review to the internet of this already smash-hit, critically-acclaimed novel? Wonder the movie is hitting theaters next month, in case people haven’t heard of it. I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the time to review it. That changed once I started. As a middle school teacher—as a human being—I must champion R.J. Palacio’s timeless message. Some books deserve the hype, and Wonder lives up to its name. Parents, your kids must read this book. Read this book with your kids even, then discuss it as a family. It’s rare to find literature that distills the complicated themes of life into such simple truths, and a novel that does so makes a powerful treasure.

Born with a facial deformity, 5th grader August Pullman enrolls in a private school to attend classes outside his home for the first time. While adults do their best to not notice and students make no secret of their curiosity and horror, Auggie wants nothing more than to just be ordinary. Soon Julian, a teacher’s pet when instructors are looking and a horrible bully when they’re not, leads a charge to ostracize the new student, and even the friends Auggie thinks he can count on wear masks of their own. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister Via struggles to adjust to a new high school and the pains of growing up. The point of view changes as the narrative unfolds, allowing the voices of Auggie’s classmates to intersect and craft a heart-wrenching tour of empathy and human dignity. Written at the middle-grade level, this beautiful coming-of-age story speaks to kids and adults alike.

“Like a lamb to the slaughter: Something that you say about someone who goes somewhere calmly, not knowing that something unpleasant is going to happen to them. I Googled it last night. That’s what I was thinking when Ms. Petosa called my name and suddenly it was my turn to talk.”

Told in short vignettes with a relatable middle school voice, Palacio’s novel captures the rapid change-of-subject and constant ups and downs of life from a kid’s point of view. Readers hear first from Auggie, then from his sister Via—whose section beautifully depicts the mess of compassion and resentment that comes with having a sibling who needs special care—and then from the perspectives of two of Auggie’s schoolmates, Via’s boyfriend, and her ex-best friend. Some expanded editions even include the ebook known as The Julian Chapter, giving voice to Auggie’s main tormentor.

Nothing about the story feels forced or contrived. Palacio builds her narrative on ordinary conflicts: shifting friend groups, arguments with parents, a sick family dog. Put together, the chapters touch on all aspects of identity from race and class to which lunch table a student belongs. At times I wanted a bit more pep in the plot; nothing terrifying or particularly unusual happens, especially when compared to other classic novels of its type. Yet the pedestrian tour of Auggie’s universe works to extend its humanity. While one might think Wonder is just a metaphor for how we all feel like the outcast sometimes, it bravely goes beyond that expectation by featuring themes about kindness and courage. The other narrators see just as much transformation as August does, and at times they’re even more likeable. Creative in form and content, Wonder is a twenty-first-century tale that bridges gaps across generations, fighting for every kid to take a turn in the spotlight. Recommended for middle school and high elementary school readers, especially for class or book reports.

Be sure to check out R.J. Palacio’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

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Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman

Ember (Reprint Edition), 2014

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The verdict: Original, stirring, epic in scope and intimate in nature, Seraphina pushes beyond the frontiers of dragon fantasy tales.

A friend recommended this book and promised it wasn’t just a typical YA novel, and after diving into the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, I admit that I’m a fan of Seraphina. Hartman’s novel is a true labor of love, showing years of her dreaming and patience in the complex world building and thorough characterization. What struck me even more so was Hartman’s lyrical prose, creating a story that’s not just intelligent but actually beautiful. Seraphina’s musical talent features prominently in the novel, and the chapters themselves contain a sort of melody, adding layers of emotion to a plot already ripe with tension and conflict on many levels.

In a world where dragons can blend into society by taking human forms, Seraphina is a rare half-breed—and she closely guards the secret of her dragon lineage. Her position as a palace music assistant places her in view of numerous characters, including Princess Glisseldsa, sincere yet naive in her entitlements, and her cousin, Lucian Kiggs, a closeted intellectual betrothed to the wrong woman and not quite belonging in the regal world. When a murder in the royal court presents potentially disastrous implications for the long-standing peace treaty with the dragons, Seraphina finds herself teamed up with Kiggs to solve the mystery, and they find more commonalities than first meet the eye. In a strict caste system where the scaly beasts are forbidden to relate too closely with humans, Seraphina’s very existence risks upending the societal detente, but staying silent may be more dangerous still. It’s a story about dragons, royalty, and romantic adventure, but it’s also a story about identity, forgiveness, and the necessary challenge of loving oneself.

“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Hartman’s novel is Seraphina’s “garden,” a mind palace of sorts where she mentally retreats to sort—and contain—the emotions and memories passed down from her dragon mother. In a land steeped in religious traditions, rituals, and moral rigidity, Seraphina’s struggle to belong starts off a bit run-of-the-mill, and readers could quickly tire of sharing her burdens. In the early pages, even her musical talent manages to make her a misfit. Yet several unexpected elements—including the mind palace—save Seraphina from whining too much about her self-imposed isolation, and a strong supporting cast keeps the narrative moving forward. Seraphina’s father is progressive yet cynical; her uncle is peculiar yet instructive. In several clever scenes, dragons must adjust to having not only human bodies but also human emotions, for better or for worse. Where Seraphina soars is in how the reader senses a clear right and wrong while at the same time hesitating to name any one character as all good or all bad. The action slows down enough for readers to form opinions as varied and complicated as the figures in Seraphina’s mind garden, and the challenge of knowing one must act but not quite knowing how to act summarizes the plight of human existence. Thankfully for fans, Hartman already has more in the series. A marvelous exploration of the sacred and profane, the dignified and the ugly, the truth of knowledge and the truth of experience, Seraphina should be on every fantasy lover’s reading list, human, dragon, or otherwise.

Be sure to check out Rachel Hartman’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

Random House, 2006

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The verdict: Heartfelt, accessible, and deeply compelling, Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel is an all-around triumph.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge David Mitchell fanboy. I’m consistently blown away by his raw talent, endless creativity, and sheer ambition as a writer. Having read other titles prior to this one, I knew I’d be predisposed to love Black Swan Green, but it still managed to surprise me. I didn’t grow up in 1980s England, but I had no trouble relating to the protagonist or seeing the world through his eyes. Some have compared Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel to Catcher in the Rye, and I’d dare to say it’s better. I found it more approachable, more universally appealing, and, frankly, more entertaining than the classic American Bildungsroman (I’m an English literature teacher, so I don’t say that lightly).

The novel follows 13-year-old Jason Taylor for one year (13 months to be exact—each chapter is its own episode that contributes to the larger narrative) in the small town of Black Swan Green. Jason worries about his rank in the social hierarchy of his school and how to fit in despite his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it under a pseudonym; he fears failure, exposure, and rejection, yet through a nonstop whirl of adventures must learn to experience and overcome all three. The scenes range from a tense family dinner with visiting relatives to a bizarre afternoon spent hiking down a horseback riding trail, with everything from the nighttime hazing of a secret club to a life-changing occurrence at a town fair in between. Jason accidentally breaks his grandfather’s treasured watch and then seeks to replace it before his parents find out. As the story progresses, Jason himself must break, sometimes forcibly and sometimes by choice, wondering if anything in life can ever be put back to the way it once was.

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.'”

Mitchell’s achievement comes in how brilliantly he interweaves events of personal and global significance—Jason’s parents’ impending divorce, the growing conflict in the Falklands—without ever breaking the enchantment of the narrative. The slang fits without being distracting, and the reader stays just enough ahead to appreciate the joys and horrors of being a kid without exactly knowing how the story will end. Each of the chapters absorbs in its own way, from the ugly brutality of school bullies to the shy awkwardness of a first kiss, and the final tapestry is a timeless portrait of adolescence. Poignant throughout and a little bizarre in some parts, Black Swan Green is empathetic without sacrificing action and thought-provoking without sacrificing wit. To offer a criticism, I might say that the ending doesn’t pack a mind-blowing punch that will fundamentally change the way readers see the world, but I still found it satisfying. The subtlety provides a different kind of thesis. A 13-year-old doesn’t figure life out in a year, and that’s okay. Mitchell assures that, in the end, everything will be alright—but we’re still on the journey, and it’s not the end yet. I don’t have to be 13 to agree with that. Best suited for advanced teen readers and adults who appreciate literary prose, Black Swan Green is a rich depiction of a season of life and well worth the visit.

Be sure to check out David Mitchell’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.
If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.