Wonder, RJ Palacio

It’s been a good long time since I’ve read a middle-grade novel I would recommend as highly as I would Wonder. This is one of those books, though, that I want to see in every school library and classroom. I want it to be on required reading lists for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I want to be sure that it’s one of those stories that gets talked about and remembered by young readers, so for the many of you out there in the position to make that happen – get on it!

Maybe I’m crazy, and there are actually hundreds of incredible books written for children that age, but back in the day, I scrounged for anything out of the ordinary and mostly ended up with formulaic novels featuring blonde, shiny protagonists. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with blonde, shiny protagonists. They have a right to the same amount of shelf space as anyone else. The problem is, most people are not blond or shiny – even fewer are both – and yet books are absolutely chock-full of peppy, winsome people with unrealistic issues.

Tell me the truth: have you ever asked a person what one time he or she would never choose to relive? I have, on a number of occasions, and the answer is always the same. Junior high. Those three or four years in between the innocence of elementary education and the ignorance of high school are no man’s land. The kids experiencing them just want to get out alive, and those of us who have made the journey look back with a shudder of relief. Back then, I had a face (with braces, and glasses, and some horrific bangs) that only a mother could love. I think I most closely resembled one of the troll doll key chains I insisted on carrying around, and my personality did not make up for the fact that I was also chubby and uncoordinated.

Do you know why? It’s because children that age are short-sighted,  insecure, and frightened – even the nice ones! Even the ones who turn their homework assignments in on time and win trophies in soccer! Even the ones with tidy handwriting and perfect attendance! The beginning of puberty just kicks itself up into a tizzy and turns pleasant children into sullen, explosive, sneaky preteens. And guess what? We still have to love them in this phase, and part of my definition of love is finding books that make kids going through tough times feel better.

Wonder is one of those books. It’s written from the perspective of five people, although the central character is August Pullman, a ten-year old boy born with an incredibly rare combination of genetic disorders that lead to his having a painfully deformed face.  The story winds its way through his first year attending school after having been home-schooled for years;  while the fifth grade is difficult for everyone, this bright, kind child has been dealt a particularly rough hand, and his problems are the type that cannot be hidden from prying, judgmental eyes.

(from the perspective of Justin, August’s older sister Olivia’s boyfriend):

i can’t sleep tonight. my head is full of thoughts that won’t turn off. lines from my monologues. elements of the periodic table that i’m supposed to be memorizing. theorems i’m supposed to be understanding. olivia. auggie.

miranda’s words keep coming back: the universe was not kind to auggie pullman. i’m thinking about that a lot and everything it means. she’s right about that. the universe was not kind to auggie pullman.

what did that little kid ever do to deserve his sentence? what did the parents do? or olivia? she once mentioned that some doctor told her parents that the odds of someone getting the same combination of syndromes that came together to make auggie’s face were like one in four million. so doesn’t that make the universe a giant lottery, then? you purchase a ticket when you’re born. and it’s all just random whether you get a good ticket or a bad ticket. it’s all just luck.

my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. like with parents who adore you blindly. and a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. and a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. and even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds. (loc 2580)

The universe takes care of all its birds. It doesn’t always feel that way to me, but I still the love of the idea of it. Palacio writes characters who are painful and real, but not without hope. They aren’t nearly as blonde or shiny as many fictional children are, and yet they have untapped reserves of resilience and compassion.  Hope, resilience, and compassion are the best gifts I could conceivably imagine giving a child, so when I find them woven into a beautiful story, I can’t help but want to put a copy in every kid’s hands…


For more about RJ Palacio, head this way.

Salsa Nocturna Stories, Daniel José Older

I have gotten to the point where I can no longer say I’m iffy about short stories. I’ve always loved them, but novels take up so much more space in my brain that I forget how great they can be every. single. time.

It’s not the worse problem to have, of course – a terrible memory means I get to experience that unexpected burst of joy whenever I venture into short story territory. I’m not even picky about genre the way I am with longer books, I suspect because a short story is so much less of a commitment. I can read it in two or five or thirty minutes, and if it wasn’t my favorite, no great loss. I’m not emotionally over-investing, so I have a lot of leeway for experimentation.

Older’s stories fall into the urban fantasy category, and since I wasn’t expecting that when I got the book from my mother, it turned out to be a lovely surprise. While I’m willing to read just about anything under ten pages, the special place in my heart where urban fantasy lives is absolutely infinite. I just devoured this book, with its sweet, interconnected character arcs, each story building on the delicate tales that had come before.

The author manages to capture a New York City that is almost tastable. The overly sweetened coffee with unfiltered cigarettes, cologne masking sweat, rot and the sewer rushes – it all blends together to create a space on the edge of life and death in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. He sweeps the unbelievable in with the want-to-haves, writes friendships as tough as his characters are fragile. Older hovers in the margins of the city, and in doing so, casts his spell over any reader who has been there herself.

He doesn’t shy away from horror, but underneath the creepiness, his gentler heart shines through. He is an optimist, at least on the page, and his characters reflect a kind of friendly hopefulness that seems to run counter to the horrific settings they find themselves in. The balance worked for me though – too much terror and I wouldn’t have made it through the second story, too much light and I would question the true shape of his created world. Swaying in between the extremes, his stories found my happy place and took up residency there.


For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

So, I never do this – I have a policy against doing this, in fact – but just this once, I’m going to break the rules and talk about a book I didn’t finish. I think it goes without saying that it’s also a book I didn’t like very much, but I want to be clear about something up front: this is an exceptionally well-written novel. My not liking it has absolutely nothing to do with Pessl’s talent, her dialogue, pacing, or plot. I genuinely believe this is a book worthy of all the acclaim it has received since publication. The only reason I feel I can talk plainly about what didn’t work for me in this novel is because I would recommend it to any number of friends without reservation.

It’s actually painful to me to start a book, to get halfway through 514 pages and decide that I just need to stop. Part of me desperately wants to keep reading because the story is surprising, and I’m genuinely curious about where the author’s going with it, but a larger part – the part that has been wrestling with this book for the better part of a month – is ready to surrender. I have to come to terms with the fact that, as much as I like her stylized writing and wit, I cannot stand a single one of Pessl’s characters, and it’s impossible for me to go on with them.

I have a quirk when it comes to entertainment, and it’s not something I think I’ve mentioned here before, namely because it precludes my enjoyment of whatever I’m reading or watching to the point that I stop. I try not to review things that I actively hate, so it stands to reason that I’ve never written about a book filled with characters – well-developed, perfectly reasonable characters – who talk and act and think in a way that is so uncomfortable to me that I get no joy from following them to a resolution.

The first book I remember feeling strongly about in this way was The Catcher and the Rye. I was tremendously excited to read it at the time (I was fifteen), and many friends had told me it was their favorite book. Unread, it held an air of mystery, of rebellion, and debauchery, and it seemed custom-made for an oddball reader fanatic like me. Well, unlike Special Topics, it was a quick read, and thank goodness for that because otherwise, I don’t think I would have made it. My initial, overwhelming gut reaction upon finishing the book was that I needed to punt Holden Caulfield as far from me as humanly possible. I despised him. It’s clear to me now that I didn’t understand him, and while, with age, I’ve grown more sympathetic, I’ve never completely shaken that initial distaste.

I experienced the same thing a few years ago when I tried to watch Mad Men. It seemed like everyone I knew was flat-out obsessed, and I made it through about half a season before I realized that this just wasn’t for me. I remember getting into several heated debates over my refusal to give it another chance. Its supporters were shocked that I could fail to be magicked into that world – what I tried to tell them was that I had. I, in fact, had zero problem imagining that world, like Caulfield’s, smothering the hope right out of me, and I had no interest in returning to it whatsoever.

When I read or watch something, I don’t mind if it makes me sad or anxious or angry sometimes. Books, especially, provide cathartic relief for an entire spectrum of emotions, and I love that about them. A book that makes me feel nothing is read and forgotten in the saddest way. The difficulty I have with a book like Pessl’s is that she didn’t write a single character I’d want to be friends with, and that, in a nutshell, is the test every novel or movie or show has to pass for me. I’m willing to put up with a whole cast of hateful characters if there is even one I connect with; in this case, although I felt badly for everyone in the book, I ultimately didn’t want to know what awful thing happened next. All I could think was that these pitiful, hurting, angry people were going to unravel in ways that destroyed the joy of everyone around them. The end result would be misery, and blame, and loneliness, and self-recrimination.

We all have what my fangirl best friend calls a “squick.” In case you’re unfamiliar with this term, it implies a very personal revulsion to a particular type of circumstance; it does not, however, imply a judgement that said circumstance is bad or wrong – it’s just a knee-jerk reaction of repulsion. One of my major squicks is broken characters headed down awful roads into lives of spiraling misery. Many people find reading that type of story highly enjoyable, and that is a-ok with me. I just can’t do it.

Maybe I’m selling Pessl short by choosing not to finish. Maybe if I labored on, one of these characters would surprise me. I’m happy to be spoiled in the comments by such revelations, but for the time being, I have to give this book a pass.


For more about Marisha Pessl, go here.

Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Commonplace Books)

Every once in a while, I come across a story being told in an unconventional way and I inadvertently fall in love with it. A few months ago, it was The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. At the moment, “fresh” off a twelve-hour flight, it’s this podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. And yes, I realize I live in a shuttered world where the concept of storytelling via podcasts is novel to me. I’m guessing everybody else has been listening to them since around 200…6? Maybe? I honestly have no idea when podcasts really took off. Was it related to smart phones? Could I look all this up? Probably! But jet lag! So no. I’m just going to assume I’m a minimum of eight years behind the curve on anything that has to do with the internet.

So, podcasts! Yes! I love them, especially since I can’t read on planes, trains, or in automobiles (motion sickness is the devil), and I have begun to get migraines from trying to watch movies on the little television stuck into the seat in front of me. The angle is just wrong and it causes neck strain because I have an abnormally long torso…but I digress. I get bored listening to music after about three hours, and even factoring in napping and boredom snacking, that still leaves about five or six hours I have to fill when traveling this far.

I’ve recently been coming around to audiobooks to try to fill this need, but they’re expensive to buy and nearly impossible to download from the library onto a Mac. (I don’t know why that is, and maybe I’m doing it wrong, but it sends me into a tailspin of rage whenever I try it, so…) Welcome to Night Vale, on the other hand, is free and downloads easily onto my phone for hours of stress-free listening pleasure.  Those two factors alone sold it to me pretty hard, I have to admit, but fortunately, in addition, the content, designed as twice monthly radio broadcasts from a small desert town with dark roots and frequent paranormal happenings, is also delightful.

Readers who have been following me awhile know that I adore humor – dark, silly, vengeful, romantic – I crave it all on a regular basis. In fact, I can forgive a whole boatload of issues with a story or writer if the content has made me laugh. I can even squint my eyes at a podcast and call it enough of a book to review here if it has entertained me thusly. What can I say? I have literary scruples that are very easily bested by a case of the giggles.

Welcome to Night Vale  was the perfect brain candy for this flight. It kept my spirits up over the incredibly long hours, it split into twenty-minute segments so I could doze and listen as fitfully as a I pleased, and it made me into that person who snort-laughs into complete silence (which, if I’m really being honest, I love to do). Is it a book? No. Is it damn fine story-telling, available free of charge to anyone with access to the internet and a pair of headphones? Yes.

I call that a win.