I chose this one as my March book for the Just One More Pa(i)ge Reading Challenge 2019, the prompt for which was to read a book by someone differently-abled in honor of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Now, after reading it, I recognize that technically there was no representation for developmental disabilities in this book at all…it was completely a physical disability(?). Regardless, two things in my defense. One, I didn’t know that going in. Two, this has been recommended to be a few times by people and it really was about time I picked it up. That doesn’t really excuse the fact that it only tangentially meets the prompt, but I’ve been really busy this month and truly don’t have time to read another book before the end of the month, so this will have to do.
Our protagonist, Auggie, is about to start fifth grade, which is a bigger deal for him than it is for most people. It’s his first time ever in a real school. And not only that, but, due to a rare combination of genetic factors, he has some rather drastic facial differences. He’s had his whole life to get used to the way people react to him, so he does a great job ignoring it for the most part, but being in middle school is different. Though Auggie just wants to be treated like a normal kid, it remains to be seen if his classmates can move past his “extraordinary” looks.
Basically, this is just an incredibly sweet little story about the importance of being kind to others, of putting ourselves in their shoes and accepting them for whatever/whoever they are. Obviously, the main focus of the book is on the way Auggie adjusts to “real’ school. There are the ups and downs of being in a regular classroom – the moments of light when classmates become friends and the moments of darkness when we see how mean kids can really be to each other. I honestly felt like, overall, the entire middle school experience was evenly portrayed, both the positives and the negatives, with neither side overly dominating the plot and character development. This extends out beyond the school setting, and into the family/home sphere as well. There are complicated sibling relationships, totally “normal” family loss, parental nerdiness and frustration and lots of other relatable moments for the reader, no matter who you are. It’s just so genuinely shown throughout the book how we are all equally affected/shaped by the challenges we face and the help and goodness we receive.
I also really liked the way the story is told from multiple points of view. They are all youth perspectives, which correctly fits the overall reading level. But it allows for the reader to really see what is going on inside each person’s mind and makes them more likely to find a character they identify with. Auggie is absolutely an inspiring protagonist, and his POV sections are the longest, but the thing is, his perspective is so unique that I think it’s hard for a young person to truly imagine what he’s experiencing. That type of mental projection is, primarily, a later life development. So I really appreciated the way the author included a lot of others that can help elementary and middle school students really understand all the interactions in the novel. For example, we hear from Auggie’s older sister, his sister’s (ex) best friend, two of the friends Auggie makes in his new school, and more. Each of these characters has different experiences in knowing Auggie, and in their own lives, that allow for a broader learning experience in compassion and kindness for younger readers. It also does a lot to help them start to understand that each person has their own internal struggles, even if you cannot see them or they won’t talk about them, and that is also an important lesson for why it’s important to be an empathetic person. (As a side note here, I would have loved to see a POV section from the main kid bullying Auggie. There is always a reason that youth act out that way, and having space for more understanding of the “why” behind those actions might have been a nice way to balance out the otherwise good/bad and nice/mean dichotomy of the majority of the characters. And it would have further reinforced the message(s) that you don’t always know what someone is dealing with elsewhere in their life.)
In general, this was such a lovely and balanced story about growing up, with wonderful messages about treating others with consideration (important definitely for young readers, but really for most adults too). Although it’s perhaps a bit too happy/positive, (overall and especially by the end) considering the situation (I feel like, in real life, maybe things wouldn’t end quite that perfectly/cleanly in regards to “good” kids winning and “bad” kids being…found out and fairly dealt with…and such, eventual, universal acceptance), I can absolutely see why this book has become required reading in many schools. I am completely on board with the overall messages it’s teaching. Plus, hopefully I am underestimating kids in general, who knows? Regardless, I definitely recommend this middle-grade novel – it’s fast and uplifting and will definitely give you the happy ugly crying tears at the end (if you are a person predisposed to that…as I am).