Allison's Book Bag

I don’t hate Wonder, but I also don’t love it as others seem to. To me, Palacio is trying to write a feel-good book. A heavy-handed message and inaccurate facts takes precedence over the crafting of a good story. However, she misses the mark of a feel-good book by at times being patronizing and offensive.

An often heard expression is “it’s all in the details”. For me, WWonder‘ details are shaky. August is about to start middle school, which means he should be entering sixth grade or possibly seventh. Nope, he’s starting fifth. Next, I had an issue with the fact the classrooms had chalkboards rather than whiteboards. Is this story set in the past? Nope. Does the book explain why a modern school is still using chalkboards? Nope. Finally, there’s lunch. For the nine years I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen it done only one way. Students aren’t allowed to sit anywhere they want, as they do in Wonder. They enter in line order and the only time that line order is broken is when students are pulled for misbehavior. Are there schools that let kids sit anywhere? Maybe, so I gave the book a partial pass on this one. But the liberties taken with these details made me question everything else in the story.

Now that I’ve nitpicked, let’s get to the meat of my issues with Wonder. By now, anyone familiar with Wonder probably knows the inspiration behind it: Palacio and her sons encountered a little girl with a craniofacial abnormality, her three-year-old cried in fear, and Palacio reacted by fleeing with her children. Within a day, feeling she had missed the opportunity for a good teaching moment, Palacio began writing Wonder. Frankly, I thought that, in the wake of gems like Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine and Rules by Cynthia Lord, we were beyond stories being used as little more than a vehicle to promote acceptance of those who are different. Repeatedly, August tells us that he views himself as normal. In contrast, Mockingbird brings readers into the life of a girl with autism who is learning to deal with death, and through her experience we get a glimpse into what it’s like to have autism. I also thought authors had stopped serving up books which use a character to show the rest of the world how to act. The whole theme of Wonder, even by Palacio’s admission, is that we should all learn to be kinder. In contrast, Rules shows us a girl who is learning how to deal with her brother’s autism, which sometimes she enjoys and other times makes her furious.

I have one more quibble with Wonder. At times, August seems childish and even slow. Definitely not like the fifth graders I have taught. He did undergo several surgeries as a child. Did this put him back academically? His parents are also overprotective. Does this make him emotionally immature? Perhaps Palacio wanted to show August’s transition from being a dependent to independent child, but I still feel bothered. I have never met anyone with craniofacial abnormalities, but from what I’ve read they can have speech and language disabilities which doesn’t necessarily mean academic disabilities. Based on Wonder, readers might get the wrong impression about the intelligence of those with craniofacial abnormalities. (Oh, and it also brings up another inaccuracy. August’s school is private and so does not admit those with special needs. The book doesn’t say if August has impaired speech, but he does eventually wear hearing aids and speech impairment often goes hand-in-hand with hearing impairment.)

The craniofacial community seems to have embraced Wonder, as have anti-bullying organizations and a number of top-notch review magazines. Wonder also has an exemplary message, one which would be worthy of a classroom discussion. I’ve also read reader reviews by those who question the portrayal of August, which has inspired questions about what it must like to have craniofacial abnormalities. For the above reasons, you might want to check it out Wonder.

However, I’m going to end with a plea. Future writers of books for young people, while you should absolutely write more books about individuals with special needs, please treat your characters with respect by making them three-dimensional and placing them into rich stories, and don’t just use them as a teaching moment. That’s not fair to anyone.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

 

Wonder by RJ Palacio has been a best-seller. It’s been embraced by towns, schools and the craniofacial community. Since Wonder sold to publishers in Britain and America in a three-player auction, foreign language rights have been bought in eight countries so far, film options are in discussion, and the novel is all over the blogosphere. The book has inspired readers to write songs, poems, and chapters from different points of view. Some even celebrate August’s birthday. Tomorrow I’ll post a review. Save the date: August 1!

AUTHOR LIFE

The Telegraph reveals that R. J. Palacio is not her real name. Born in New York, and raised in a working-class neighborhood, Palacio was surrounded by books. She tried to honor her parents by being good, doing well in school, and achieving her goals. Palacio’s mother used to always remind her that she was a writer. And Palacio wrote her first book, she took her mother’s name as her pen name.

Palacio had long wanted to be a writer, but life would get in the way. And she would let it. When she did write, she stopped when it got tough. Writing wasn’t how she paid the bills. Instead Palacio spent the past twenty years in publishing as a creative director and book jacket designer. In that position, she has designed covers for countless well-known and not so well-known writers in every genre of fiction and nonfiction. Then came the moment when all that changed.

BOOK BACKGROUND

RJPalacioRead any biography or interview with Palacio and it will be easy to find the inspiration for Wonder. About five years ago, Palacio took her sons for ice cream. While her older son went inside to buy us milk shakes, Palacio waited on an outside bench with her younger son who was in a stroller. At a certain point, Palacio noticed a mother and daughter next to her. The little girl had a severe craniofacial difference. When Palacio’s younger son looked up and saw the little girl, he started to cry. Palacio tried to push him away in his stroller to avoid hurting the girl’s feelings. In her haste, she caused her older son to spill the shakes, which resulted in quite the scene. As Palacio and pushed her younger son’s stroller away she heard the little girl’s mom say, “I think it’s time to go.” Readers might find it a point of interest that a version of this scene actually appears in the novel.

On the car drive home with her sons to Brooklyn, Palacio couldn’t stop thinking about how that scene had played out. As a multitude of questions went through her, she also felt disappointed because she had missed a good teaching moment for her kids. She could have engaged mother and the girl in conversation. She could have set a better example, showing her sons there was nothing to fear. Or so she felt. Instead she panicked. When Natalie Merchant’s song Wonder popped up on the radio, a song honoring a child with a disability, the first line came to her for a book and then the whole premise of the novel. The book wrote itself.’

With a fulltime job and family to juggle, Palacio had to be very disciplined about her writing time. Her routine when writing Wonder went like this: come home from work, have dinner with family, help with some homework, watch some television, sleep for a couple of hours, and then wake up around midnight to write when everyone was asleep. She’s the not first author to try this routine, but perhaps one of the few to not find it hard. “I was so into the story and the characters I couldn’t wait to get back to them.”

Sharp Read reports that for her research, Palacio spent a few weeks reading about genetics, specifically craniofacial anomalies in children. She came to the conclusion that the girl at the ice cream store had probably had a severe form of Treacher Collins, which is what she also pictured August as having although she never really identifies it in the book. She didn’t consult doctors regarding August’s medical condition, instead relying on the internet and watching documentaries. Nor did she speak with any families dealing with these issues. Portraying how others responded to August is what seemed most important to her.

I hope that kids will come away with the idea that they are noticed: their actions are noted. Maybe not immediately or directly or even in a way that seems obvious, but if they’re mean, someone suffers. If they’re kind, someone benefits. And the choice is theirs: whether to be noticed for being kind or for being mean. They get to choose who they want to be in this world.  And it’s not their friends and not their parents who make those choices: it’s them.

–RJ Palacio, FAQ

ONLINE RESOURCES

My husband and I sometimes talk about the trends and quirks in books for young people, based on the selections which I review. For example, adults are often absent, a trend we both sometimes wish was less often true. In contrast, Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor overflows with adults. Ironically, a quirk in books for young people is that none of the characters seem like your average youth, who are into cell phones, games, clothes, and the most current entertainment. This would be an apt statement about Sparrow Road, which may give it a more limited audience.

True, the main character is Sparrow Road is a twelve-year-old girl, but every other person in Raine’s life is an adult. That’s right. There is only ONE young person in this entire novel. As for those adults, they’re all an eclectic group of artists spending their summer at Sparrow Road. The owner Viktor seems to know Raine’s mother prior to hiring her for a job as housekeeper and cook. The artists call him “The Iceberg” with good reason, although even the hardest ice can melt given the right conditions. Then there is Lillian, who in her mind is living in the days when foster children used to inhabit the place. She also at times speaks of an unrequited romance. With his tropical shirts, Diego doesn’t much resemble Raine’s idea of an artist. Nonetheless, he’s adept at collecting what others considered junk and turning it into art. There’s also Josie, who wears patchwork outfits. The epitome of eccentric, Josie is who gives welcome basket to newcomers, convinces Viktor to invite outsiders to a party at Sparrow Road, and discovers a mystery about Sparrow Road. Then there’s Eleanor, who doesn’t like anyone. And receives the same amount of affection from the artists. Aside from this cast, there’s also a stranger who comes into Raine’s life to make things right with the family. I enjoyed seeing all their stories unveil, never once caring about anyone’s age, combined with the mutual respect exchanged between the young Raine and the older artists who all make up the fabric of Sparrow Road.

In the opening chapter, Raine feels like your average middle-school girl. She like television and radio, talking with her friends and family, and even eating Popsicles and candy. Her stay at Sparrow Road shows a different side. One of the rules at the artist retreat is that no one can talk until 5:00 except on Sundays. Initially, Raine only wants to return to Milwaukee, where she’s used to the song of sirens, noise of neighbors humming through the walls, and the roar of city traffic. She soon discovers Diego’s advice about how quiet can lead to daydreaming the making up stories isn’t as far-fetched as one might expect. And that she likes helping Lillian write poems. Then there’s the mystery of what happened to the orphans who used to live at Sparrow Road. Not to mention all those trips her mother makes to the nearby town, all the while refusing to let Raine join her. Now as I point out to my husband, there are lots of creative young people. Along with those who are into solving mysteries, something often more the territory of adults. His issue actually isn’t so much with a book featuring a character or two like this, but that these books tend to consist solely of these types of characters. Of course, Sparrow Road is largely made up of adults and so what can you expect? Well, I still think my husband has a point. Raine’s mom likes to play music. As does the stranger who comes into her life. The story is laden with creative folks. Myself being a writer, I adore this type of book. As I think of my students, however, I realize that I’m checking off the ones who wouldn’t. And the list is admittedly small.

Sparrow Road was a quick and delightful read. And I think at least the girls in my writing club students would enjoy it. Along with many of the advanced readers in the upper elementary classes in which I teach. For the right audience, Sparrow Road is a thought-provoking and well-written book.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

SheilaOConnorSheila O’Connor is the author of four novels. Her poems, stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and magazines. She has also edited two collections of writing by young people.  Her work has been recognized with Bush Foundation, Loft McKnight, and Minnesota State Arts Board fellowships.

O’Connor teaches fiction in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA)  program at Hamline University where she has been honored twice with the Outstanding Teacher Award. She also serves as editor of Water Stone Review. A long-time poet with the Writer-in-the-Schools program, O’Connor has taught writing to thousands of young people. In addition to her work with young people, O’Connor is a frequent guest lecturer at colleges and other venues.

Admidst her busy schedule, she took time to answer three questions dear to her heart. Tomorrow I’ll review her Sparrow Road, a young adult novel about improbable friendships and the power of imagination. Save the date: July 29!

ALLISON: When drawing on memories for your books, do you write mostly from your childhood or that of your kids or students? How easy or difficult is it to remember your earliest days?

SHEILA: I have a fairly keen memory of my early days, but I don’t draw on specific incidents when writing my books.  Instead, I draw on the emotional experience of being young, which I tend to remember quite well. I moved frequently as a child, so the experience of relocation, or separation from home, is quite vivid for me. For example in Sparrow Road, Raine spends the summer in an unfamiliar setting, an artist colony, and learns what it means to create a second home and family. The children in Keeping Safe the Stars have been uprooted from a commune in New Mexico to a cabin in northern Minnesota. Both of those experiences are imagined, for me imagination is the joy of fiction, but what it means to move, to lose places and people you love, to make a new home, that much I have lived.

ALLISON: You teach writing as part of Writer-in-the-Schools program but also teach fiction to students enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts. How do you adapt your teaching to those different ages?

SHEILA: So much of my work is centered on helping writers find their voice, and tell their authentic truths, and that work is the same regardless of the age. I find myself saying the same things to third-grade students that I say to my adults—write from the heart, tell your story, be brave, trust the raw material of your lives. In the end, those lessons are important for us all—the young writer, the mid-career writer, the reluctant writer, the established writer.

ALLISON: You have indicated that Sparrow Road is the first book which you feel should have an audience with young people. Do you prefer writing for adults or youth?

SHEILA: I don’t have a preference, honestly. In part, I think of it as a conversation. To whom am I speaking and why? What is it I want to say, and who will be receiving it? Why would it matter in their world? In the end, I’m after the best way to tell a story. I’ve been delighted to write for young people and adults, and I hope to continue crossing between those worlds.

Sheila O’Connor grew up with a non-traditional childhood. In interviews, O’Connor has expressed the hope that all of her writing mirrors that life in some way—in part because O’Connor wishes that she’d seen her own childhood reflected in literature when she was young. The stories she tells all aim tell the truth of the diversity of children’s lives. Tomorrow I’ll post an interview with O’Connor and then on Wednesday I’ll post my review of Sparrow Road. Save the dates: July 29-30!

EARLY LIFE

A native of Minnesota, O’Connor was born in the same hospital where her dad was born, and the same hospital where she held a job during college. She doesn’t live far from there now.

When she was young, her grandparents managed a bar and restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. In her bio, O’Connor remembers listening to the customers’ stories. She also used to pick songs out on the jukebox, dance with her sisters, and feast on late night dinners of barbecue ribs and kiddie cocktails.

During her childhood, O’Connor’s family moved a lot, and by the time she reached fourth grade she had gone to four different schools. In her bio, O’Connor views the constant moving as a positive experience, which taught her to keep a close eye on the world, to listen, and to pay attention to the ways every new place worked. It also taught her that the world was full of odd and interesting people, and that everywhere she went a new, exciting story was waiting to be lived.

When O’Connor’s mother got remarried, the family settled in a house in Minneapolis, a place which she loves to this day. In Minneapolis, buses could took her everywhere, especially downtown where she would hang out in the Central Library or lose hours watching strangers on the streets and imagining their stories. She also discovered the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mostly, during her childhood, O’Connor loved to read, write, and run free with friends. She tells Cynthia Leitich Smith that her preference was realism, because it featured stories of ordinary people, people who could be her. By elementary school, she especially liked stories in which the characters faced challenges with friends, family, school, culture. This type of literature taught her about life; She was happy to let the characters make mistakes that would save her from making them. In her bio, O’Connnor also notes that in fourth grade, she also kept a diary which described her likes and hates, in which she tried to capture everything that was happening in her life.

ADULT LIFE

Despite her early start in writing, starting at age sixteen when she worked at a hardware store to finance a trip across the United States with a friend, O’Connor bounced for a time from job to job. Her bio lists other notable jobs including working at a hobby shop, flagging for highway construction, and assembling cheerleader pom-poms at a factory. Eventually, O’Connor headed to college and later graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Through her classes, O’Connor shares with Mother Daughter Club, she gained encouragement to write and began to put that belief into practice. O’Connor became a teacher and a writer. O’Connor enjoys encouraging writers young and old to put their words on paper. She believe everyone has a story to tell—and that stories help us see each other’s hearts.

SheilaConnor_KidsThe best part of her life has been her husband, her children, and their pets. Her bio describes her happiest years at home with her young children playing make-believe, performing plays and puppet shows, reading books, throwing tea parties for Pooh, and sitting on the floor with stuffed animals and toys.

After her children grew up, Sheila returned to her work as a teacher and a writer. It’s a balance she still maintains. As a full-time professor teaching Master of Fine Arts students or fellow fiction writers, O’Connor explains to Cynthia Leitich Smith that she finds great company and solidarity in working side by side with others who struggle with issues of story and craft. O’Connor has also worked with students from various other ages from kindergartners to the elderly and from all backgrounds of life including those in detention centers. She finds joy in watching them discover the power of language, of claiming their personal voice and story on the page.

WRITING LIFE

According to her bio, O’Connor’s favorite writing ritual is to walk across the snow or grass with a thermos in her hand and step into the perfect quiet of her cottage, where her next page is waiting to be written. There she starts to put some words on paper, typing blindly, with no idea what will happen next. After a long of dreaming, writing, and rewriting, she finally has a book.

In Literary Rambles, O’Connor indicates that Sparrow Road grew out of her work teaching writing to young people. One afternoon after spending a month at an artist colony, O’Connor looked out her window and wondered: What if a child came to live at a place like this? A few years later, she sat down to write a story about that idea—and Sparrow Road was born.

O’Connor emphasizes to Mother Daughter Club that Sparrow Road is fictional. Although she has spent time at several artists colonies, as well as a working retreat farm run by some wonderful nuns, Sparrow Road is its own enchanted world.

She goes on to note that each of these places allowed plenty of time for quiet, which always led to a kind of fear at the start of each residency: What would she do alone, with no phone or friends or family? Ultimately, the silence allowed O’Connor time to daydream, to imagine a story into life, and to work the long uninterrupted hours she needed to write a book.

For me, Sparrow Road is a testament to the power of imagination and the many ways in which the creative process empowers and heals. I hope readers of all ages see themselves as creators—whether they’re daydreamers, or quilters, or musicians, or painters. It’s also a book about hope and generosity—how deep our goodness runs.

–Sheila O’Connor, Literary Rambles

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August: Advanced Reader Copies

It's that time again! I'm reviewing another round of Advanced Reader Copies. I'll continue to include reviews I write for our local multicultural group and for our local dog club. Enjoy!

  • The Blue Baboon in the Big Balloon by Sarah and Steven Mostyn
  • A Rare Breed of Love by Jana Kohl
  • Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, adaptation by Jerome Tiller
  • What the Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren
  • A Fiesta of Numbers by Rene Salada
  • The Exile by Eric Buffington
  • Julius Brown, Green Gas by Ace Hansen
  • Elsbeth and Castle Ghosties by J Bean Palmer

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Thirty days. Minimum average of 1666 words per day. A total of 50,000 words. I am a NaNo Winner for two years in a row and my novel in its second version.

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