Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: Wonder by RJ Palacio (and a small note on kindness)

My aunt was in town last week and she graciously came over to my apartment to have dinner with me and my mom and to deliver several books for me. I've been reading like a fiend since surgery, and I was more than happy to take them off her hands. I have read three of these books in the last four days (told you, weekend on crutches is not very exciting). The latest book I read, called Wonder by R.J. Palacio, really struck a chord with me and I decided I'd like to do a mini book review, with some additional thoughts of my own. I apologize in advance for the length. I promise it is worth it.

Summary from the inside cover: August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school - until now. He's about to enter fifth grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid, then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?

{Spoiler Alert}

To put it simply, I loved this book. It is written for kids/young adults, but I was still very engaged with the text the whole time. I couldn't put it down! The author changed the narrative perspective every few chapters, which I thought was really interesting and added a unique dynamic to the story. Much of the story was told by Auggie, the main character, but there were also sections narrated by his family and friends. It was a very cool feature to hear some of the same events from several different perspectives, especially because a big theme in the book is how you see yourself versus how other people see you. Auggie sees himself as an ordinary boy, but most people don't (can't) see him that way because of what he looks like. [Auggie has a real syndrome, called mandibulofacial dysostosis. Also known as Treacher Collins syndrome.]

Auggie finds it very difficult to make friends at his school, because few people are willing to look past his face and just be his friend. He goes through a lot of torment at the hands of his classmates, and his best friend turns his back on him so as to appear cooler to others. There's an incident near the end of the book where Auggie stands up for himself against some bullies and several boys in his class protect him. From there, everyone is much nicer to him, he wins a courage award at the commencement ceremony, and bully Julian's parents decide that he won't return to Beecher for the next school year. I did shed a few tears throughout the book - mostly when the family dog died - but we end happy.

{End spoiler alert}


My Thoughts

During Lent this year, I did a little experiment. I was pretty depressed about my hip and the effect it was having on my life, and was discouraged by some people in my life who gossip, talk about others, and generally have only negative things to say. I decided that during Lent, I would not gossip, have negative thoughts, say negative things about myself or others, curse, or complain (boy that's a lot of things). More than that, I would try to come up with a positive in every situation, give someone the benefit of the doubt, and attempt to stop the complaining of others, if possible. Every time I found myself failing to do so, I put a piece of paper in a jar to hold myself accountable. The papers were associated with a monetary value and I will be donating the corresponding amount to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation at the end of this month in honor of the kindest soul I know. 

I found this incredibly challenging. Keeping myself from thinking negatively or complaining was very difficult, especially with surgery looming. It got easier as the days went on, and I found myself feeling happier and generally more optimistic about life. It sounds obvious, but it is better - and easier - to be kind. I'm happy to say I have maintained this attitude even after Lent ended, and am hoping to continue on in this way for a long time.

I've also been thinking about how important this idea will be when I am in the world of teaching. Students, especially teenagers, can be mean. MEAN. These days, with smart phones at everyone's fingertips (not mine!), it is easier than ever to make lightning-fast judgments in the split second it takes to press 'enter.' This is so, so dangerous. As a teacher, I know it will be important to be kind to my students, but also to try to instill some of this kindness in them, to be reflected in the way they treat their classmates. I've found that it's harder to reform bad habits than it is to teach/learn good ones in the first place.

At the end of Wonder, the middle school director, Mr. Tushman, speaks at the commencement ceremony. In his speech, he mentions a line from The Little White Bird by J.M. Barrie: "Shall we make a new rule of life... always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?" Mr. Tushman goes on to say, "What a marvelous line, isn't it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed. Why I love that line, that concept, is that it reminds me that we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness.... Such a simple thing, kindness."

I love his words. They are true. Kindness is a choice, which is the most important thing. It is so easy to get caught up in life and work and relationships, but you don't know what every other person is going through. It is best to be kind.


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