By Peggy Burch
Reprinted with permission
March 30, 2013
The people at Literacy Mid-South estimate that 5,000 Memphis residents have read “Wonder,” a novel about a 10-year-old with a severe facial deformity who struggles to fit in at middle school.
“I won’t describe what I look like,” the protagonist says. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
As the novel by R.J. Palacio makes clear, turbulent emotions and rampant insecurity make middle school a tough adjustment for even the most adaptable of kids. The book’s theme engages children and the people who care about them. A New York Times reviewer wrote: “While I sobbed several times during ‘Wonder,’ my 9-year-old daughter — who loved the book and has been pressing it on her friends — remained dry-eyed.”
In the past, citywide reading campaigns typically focused on children, says Literacy Mid-South executive director Kevin Dean. This year, LMS wanted to include all age groups in the community reading experience.
“Considering it was a young-adult novel, I honestly wasn’t interested at first,” Dean said. “One night, I opened the book and started reading it. By page 26, I had a lump in my throat. I knew it was the one.
“The great part about ‘Wonder’ is that everyone can identify with someone in the story. ... Who hasn’t felt out of place, bullied, or just plain different in their lives?”
On Tuesday, “Wonder” fans in the Mid-South can gather at Rhodes College for the finale of Read Across America, where author Palacio will speak via Skype. In addition, the event will feature a screening of the documentary “Bully”; an appearance by Jasmine Gray, a Memphis-born filmmaker whose facial abnormality is the subject of a documentary called “More Than Skin Deep”; and a talk by The Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi C. Thomas.
The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. When the initial 180 seats had already been reserved by Thursday, Literacy Mid-South added 100 spaces. Go to literacymidsouth.org to register.
“Wonder” was inspired by an incident in Palacio’s New York City neighborhood, where the author and her two sons encountered a severely deformed young girl outside an ice cream parlor. The moment is briefly re-created in the novel.
As Palacio tells it: “I didn’t even really get that close to look at her because it was a very quick moment, but it was severe. What ended up happening was my younger son started to really cry — like scream-cry — and my older son dropped the chocolate milkshakes, and as we were leaving I heard the mum say in a really calm voice, ‘okay guys, I think it’s time to go.’ And it just kind of broke my heart, and made me start to think what life must be like for the little girl, for the mum, the sister; it made me start to think how I should have responded to the situation or what I could have done differently.”
Dean says Literacy Mid-South has given away more than 500 copies of “Wonder” (Alfred A. Knopf, $15.99) to organizations and schools that serve children from low-income areas, and the book has been assigned at schools and organizations including Soulsville Charter School, Millington Elementary and Middle schools, Hutchison School and the Neighorhood Christian Center.
Dean now is searching for a book to headline the 2014 citywide reading campaign. He’s looking for one “that will match the water-cooler-inspiring conversations that ‘Wonder’ has.”