I recently read an excellent, excellent book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It was probably the best book I've read all year (although Ready Player One was more fun in a lot of respects) and probably the best book I WILL read all year, and maybe the best book I will ever read for the rest of my life, which I must admit is rather a bittersweet notion.
It's about a little boy named August, commonly called Auggie, who was born with severe facial disfigurements. Because of his frequent hospitalizations, he was homeschooled until the age of 10, when he starts fifth grade in an actual school. And if you're thinking that that's like sending him as a lamb to the slaughter, Auggie's dad says the exact same thing at one point, and I'm sure all of us who have gone through fifth grade were thinking it.
The narration is all first-person, but different characters take up the narrative task at different points of the book, and what really struck me is that all the characters' voices (even the characters who don't take up the mantle of narrator) are all so strong and distinct and authentic.
Initially, Auggie refuses to describe his looks for the reader, saying "Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." Occasionally, however, he does let some small details slip as they become germane to the story. Later, however, his older sister Via gives us the whole picture as she takes her narrative turn. I thought that was a really elegant way to deal with the whole issue.
I think the thing that impressed me the most was how accurately the author depicted fifth grade: the odd little dramas and power-plays and politics that go on within the fifth-grade student culture. At one point, Auggie says, "[Getting through the fifth grade is] not easy, even if you're not me." Which is so very, profoundly, horribly true. Reading about Auggie's trials and triumphs brought back a lot of very painful memories for me, and it was startling how many SPECIFIC parallels I could draw between his experiences and my own. I could probably write my own book about the experiences this book made me think of/remember.
The one aspect that kind of jarred the whole thing for me in a negative way is the fact that, in Auggie's school, fifth grade is the first year of middle school. My understanding was that the middle school model is specifically sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Then again, Auggie goes to a private school, so maybe that accounts for the difference. In a way, it makes me feel jealous of Auggie and his classmates because they get a different teacher for nearly every different subject, and what wouldn't I have given for that set-up in fifth grade? The times I got to get out of that classroom and away from that harpy were almost like a vacation (well, except for PE).
But I digress. It sounds like a bad pun to say that it is a wonderful book, but it really, really is! I recommend it with all of my heart because I truly believe that anyone who reads this book will find that they have done themselves a favor.
ADDENDUM: Maybe it didn't come through clearly before, but I want to stress that this is NOT a depressing book. NOT NOT NOT the slightest bit depressing. I wouldn't recommend it if it was. It does have some genuinely light-hearted moments. It is unflinchingly honest but it is ultimately uplifting and optimistic in a non-cheesy way (although I suppose that is debatable).