R.J. Palacio's Wonder came out a few years ago, and as usual I didn't get to it till long after everyone who told me how great it was. I do listen to you all--I really do! There are just so many great books out there.
In a lot of ways, it's a very simple story--a boy with severe facial deformities attends school for the first time. Auggie has been home schooled through fourth grade, mostly because he's been in and out of the hospital for various surgeries.
But now, in fifth grade, it's time for him to go to public school. It's nothing more or less than you would expect--a combination of stares and avoidance until people get used to him, some people being nice, some being polite, some being mean.
I think the amazing thing that's going on here is the perspective--in a few different ways. First, the importance of peer relationships at 11 years old is given just the right emphasis. Some books will get you swept away with how vital your social standing is to your overall quality of life at that age, and it's not untrue, but it's also not untrue that a couple of jerks don't have to ruin your life--or they can, if they put their minds to it--and that a loving family can carry you a long way through rough social waters.
The other cool thing is that the story is told from various points of view. Auggie gets more time than anyone else, but two of his friends, his high school-aged sister, and his sister's boyfriend all get chapters to tell their perspectives, and that is absolutely invaluable. Because being Auggie is hard, and complicated, but knowing Auggie is life changing, too, and not without its own complications. And the book portrays that beautifully.
Then recently, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the new short, The Julian Chapter. Julian is the "bad guy" of Wonder; he does most of the teasing, and any deliberate meanness pretty much originates with him. I'm always interested in the book from the mean kid's point of view, but it's not that I expect a lot of new insights. Mean kids are mostly angry and scared and traumatized, but they've turned that outward. Lauren Oliver did a great job telling that story in Before I Fall, and it's going to be tough to top that one.
But I can't be surprised that Palacio brought the same humanity and balance to Julian as she did to all her other characters. Even Julian's mom--who photoshopped Auggie out of the class portrait--is treated with care and respect. And Julian's combination of denial, panic, and simple selfishness is so...understandable. All the bad guys here are people I'm just a jot of self-awareness away from being, all the time. Even Julian's "redemption" is well-earned.
I think what R.J. Palacio brings to this set of stories is the true idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself. You don't love yourself the same way you love other people. You love yourself through a deep awareness of your flaws, with your heart always open for the forgiveness that you always need. A book full of struggling, non-boring, good people is a rare find; I wish I could read this one for the first time again.