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Susan Notes:

This excerpt from Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum makes a fitting introduction to a new book for middle graders that's creating a whirlwind of admiration.

I read The Acorn People by Ron Jones aloud to a group of rough, tough, turned-off seventh graders. I read it because it's a good story and mainly because many of the kids had disabilities, are poor, are living in single-parent homes, are involved with petty crime and drugs. They need to know about climbing mouontains, overcoming odds, being decent to one another and to unknown strangers. For this group, The Acorn People delivers this message better than, say, Shakespeare, Mark Tain, Dickens, or even Aesop, authors frequently extolled on the official best-book lists.

The Acorn People becomes an instant classic in our classroom. Tough, obnoxious kids see themselves in its pages, and they are moved and challenged by the reading. Kids like Michael, who are neither tough nor obnoxious but who face formidable struggles, also see themselves in its pages. Long after the last page, kids are still talking about the characters as though they live next door. The book inspires Michael and his classmates to reach out to a class of Down's syndrome children in our building, becoming the unofficial mentors for these children. Seventh graders aren't universally known for their tact and sensitivity, but my seventh and eighth graders, some of the toughest and most emotionally vulnerable kids in the school, are proud to be depended on by students much more vulnerable than they. We become regular guests at programs and other special events put on by the Down's syndrome class because we can be depended upon to be a good, supportive audience. Keith, one of the most whacked-out kids in my classes, is the biggest pal of the Down's syndrome kids, exchanging enthusiastic high-fives in the hallways.

Keith finds triumph in my class when, as a fifteen-year-old eighth grader, he reads his first book from cover to cover: Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop. Not on most peoples' recommended reading list, reading it astounds Keith. Whenever things get tough, he pulls up a chair and reads it aloud to me. And whatever happens to Keith in the rest of his life, at least he's found a book that knocks his socks off.

A teacher never knows what messages stay with students when she's no longer around to reinforce them, so when The Acorn People appears on television three years later, I am both surprised and delighted to see Michael, now a tenth grader, appear in my doorway. "I made my whole family watch," he tells me. "The TV show was good. But the book was a lot better."

We both grin.

"I bet you never thought you'd hear me say that about a book," he says.

Later that year, Michael visited again, interrogating me about the class. "Do the kids here still read? Do you still get all those newspapers? Do they do library research? Do you read stories to them? Do they read jokes to you?" I keep nodding.

Michael adds, "I never liked reading. You made me do it. I should be reading now, but we don't read in my English class. Filling out workbook pages isn't the same thing."

Funny that Michael understands what Standardistos don't, that reading must have a purpose, and ultimately, that purpose must be linked to our curiosity, our need for beauty, humor, order. Rotten readers need the same things good readers need: poetry, humor, mystery, and tragedy from words. Words tell us about the world and about ourselves. Even reading an encyclopedia passage to find out if penguins can fly [when he entered a library Question of the Day contest described earlier in the chapter] is of infinitely more value than answering irrelevant questions about how many ducks are on the pond. To call standardized test prep a curriculum is worse than a lie; it's a mistake.

Michael asks me if he can come back to my class. The high school is only one block away; his plan is that he'll come out of study hall and I'll make him read. Michael tries to make the arrangements with the guidance counselor, but things never work out. I don't push it because I don't think one can go home again. And his mom assures me that he is actually doing "okay" at the high school, though I'm not sure what that means. What I do know is that the materials we use reveal the values we hold. I am continually amazed and disheartened by the low esteem in which so many educrats hold books--and kids.

Note: For those of you who've heard me speak, Michael wrote the famous Asparagus Letter that I read aloud just about every time I am in the presence of more than half a dozen people. He gets a whole chapter in the book, as do Keith, Sylvia, AKA the Zulu Chief, Emily, Arnold, Jean, and lots more.

And now we get to Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, a book for middle graders. . . and their parents and teachers.

Amazon Best Books of the Month for Kids February 2012: Wonder is a rare gem of a novel--beautifully written and populated by characters who linger in your memory and heart. August Pullman is a 10-year-old boy who likes Star Wars and Xbox, ordinary except for his jarring facial anomalies. Homeschooled all his life, August heads to public school for fifth grade and he is not the only one changed by the experience--something we learn about first-hand through the narratives of those who orbit his world. Augustâs internal dialogue and interactions with students and family ring true, and though remarkably courageous he comes across as a sweet, funny boy who wants the same things others want: friendship, understanding, and the freedom to be himself. "It is only with one's heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye." From The Little Prince and R.J. Palacioâs remarkable novel, Wonder.--Seira Wilson

"Wonder is essentially ... a wonder. It's well-written, engaging, and so much fun to read that the pages almost turn themselves. More than that, Wonder touches the heart in the most life-affirming, unexpected ways, delivering in August Pullman a character whom readers will remember forever. Do yourself a favor and read this book â your life will be better for it." -- Nicholas Sparks, #1 New York Times bestselling author

"Full of heart, full of truth, Wonder is a book about seeing the beauty that's all around us. I dare you not to fall in love with Auggie Pullman."
-- Rebecca Stead, Newbery award-winning author of When You Reach Me

"It is the deceptive simplicity and honesty of the work that make Wonder so memorable. Every single character seems real and well drawn and oh-so human...This book is beautiful." - Christopher Paul Curtis, Newbery award-winning author of Bud, Not Buddy

"Wonder is a beautifully told story about heartache, love, and the value of human life. One comes away from it wanting to be a better person." - Patricia Reilly Giff, two-time Newbery honor-winning author of Lily's Crossing and Pictures of Hollis Woods

Entertainment Weekly, February 17, 2012, The Top 10 Things We Love This Week:
"In a wonder of a debut, Palacio has written a crackling page-turner filled with characters you can't help but root for. Aâ"

The Huffington Post, March 1, 2012:
"WONDER's story is engaging -- you'll find yourself rooting for August as he stumbles through a world that, by fifth grade, most kids find commonplace. He's plucky and funny and vulnerable and charming, so he's hard not to like. But it's in the bigger themes that Palacio's writing shines. This book is a glorious exploration of the nature of friendship, tenacity, fear, and most importantly, kindness."

The London Times, The Top 100 People to Watch in 2012:
"The breakout publishing sensation of 2012 will come courtesy of Palacio [and] is destined to go the way of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and then some."

Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2012:
"Few first novels pack more of a punch: it's a rare story with the power to open eyes--and hearts--to what it's like to be singled out for a difference you can't control, when all you want is to be just another face in the crowd.â

Starred Review, Booklist, February 1, 2012:
"Palacio makes it feel not only effortless but downright graceful, and by the stand-up-and-cheer conclusion, readers will be doing just that, and feeling as if they are part of this troubled but ultimately warm-hearted community."

Starred Review, School Library Journal, February 1, 2012:
"Palacio has an exceptional knack for writing realistic conversation and describing the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Everyone grows and develops as the story progresses, especially the middle school students. This is a fast read and would be a great discussion starter about love, support, and judging people on their appearance. A well-written, thought-provoking book."

Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2011:
"A memorable story of kindness, courage and wonder."

Facing Up to It

By Maria Russo

New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 8, 2012


By R. J. Palacio

315 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $15.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)

Born with several genetic abnormalities, 10-year-old August Pullman, called Auggie, dreams of being "ordinary." Inside, he knows heâs like every other kid, but even after 27 surgeries, the central character of "Wonder" bears facial disfigurations so pronounced that people who see him for the first time do âthat look-away thingâ â if they manage to hide their shock and horror.

âWhatever youâre thinking, itâs probably worse,â he says of his face as the book begins. Heâs used to the stares and mean comments, but heâs still terrified to learn that his parents have gotten him into middle school at Beecher Prep and want him to go there rather than be home-schooled. But they persuade him to give it a try â and by the time this rich and memorable first novel by R. J. Palacio is over, itâs not just Auggie but everyone around him who has changed.

Stories about unusual children who long to fit in can be particularly wrenching. At their core lurks a kind of loneliness that stirs primal fears of abandonment and isolation. But Palacio gives Auggie a counterweight to his problems: He has the kind of warm and loving family many ânormalâ children lack. Among their ­â and the bookâs â many strengths, the Pullmans share the, um, earthy sense of humor that all kids love. Over the years his parents, Nate and Isabel, have turned the disturbing story of Auggieâs birth into high comedy involving a flatulent nurse who fainted at the sight of him, and they persuade him to go to Beecher by riffing hilariously on the name of the schoolâs director, Mr. Tushman. It also helps that the Pullmansâ world â they live in a town house in âthe hippie-stroller capital of upper Upper Manhattanâ â is the privileged, educated upper-middle class, that hotbed of parents who hover and micromanage the lives of their perfectly fine children. Itâs somehow weirdly satisfying to see what happens when something actually alarming enters this zone of needless anxiety. Palacio carves a wise and refreshing path, suggesting that while even a kid like August has to be set free to experience the struggles of life, the right type of closeness between parents and children is a transformative force for good.

But itâs Auggie and the rest of the children who are the real heart of âWonder,â and Palacio captures the voices of girls and boys, fifth graders and teenagers, with equal skill, switching narrators every few chapters to include Auggieâs friends and his teenage sister, Via, who wrestles with her resentment, guilt and concern. âWe circle around him like heâs still the baby he used to be,â she observes ruefully. And we see the vicious politics of fifth-grade popularity played out as the class bully targets Auggie and starts a campaign to shun him, culminating in an overnight school trip that turns scary and shuffles the social deck in ways no one could have imagined.

While I sobbed several times during âWonder,â my 9-year-old daughter â who loved the book and has been pressing it on her friends â remained dry-eyed. She didnât understand why I thought Auggieâs situation might upset her. âI like kids who are different,â she said. I realized that what makes her cry are stories in which children suffer because they have missing or neglectful parents and no one to take care of them. Perhaps Palacioâs most remarkable trick is leaving us with the impression that Auggieâs problems are surmountable in all the ways that count â that he is, in fact, in an enviable position.

Maria Russo is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

— Susan Ohanian


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