If You Like Wonder, You’ll Love This

February 8, 2018 § 2 Comments

On our way to see the movie adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy with a congenital facial abnormality beginning middle school, my son said aloud what we were all thinking: “I wonder what Auggie is going to look like.” Because, of course, there are no pictures in the novel. Even Auggie himself warns us in the first few pages, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Most of what we gather about Auggie’s face comes from what the people around him tell us, when it’s their turn to speak.

Our relentless curiosity about people who look different from ourselves, especially about things which bear little resemblance to our conventional ideas of “normality,” is only natural. Several times in the book, Auggie addresses the curiosity people have about him, especially when seeing him for the first (dozen) time(s). It’s not the curiosity itself that makes him uncomfortable, he tells us; it’s when people—out of shame or embarrassment or even an attempt at kindness—try to pretend their curiosity isn’t there. What causes Auggie pain on a daily basis is all the “not staring.”

Every new class I had was like a new chance for kids to “not stare” at me. They would sneak peaks at me from behind their notebooks or when they thought I wasn’t looking. They would take the longest way around me to avoid bumping into me in any way, like I had some germ they could catch, like I was contagious.

In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, a beautiful visual interpretation of Palacio’s words, Auggie imagines how he would feel if a giant Wookie started going to his school. As Auggie pictures a shaggy Chewbacca standing atop the school steps, surrounded by students trying not to stare at him from the courtyard, he imagines walking up the stairs and looking the creature in the eyes: “I’m sorry if my staring is making you uncomfortable,” he says gently but confidently, offering his hand to the Wookie to shake. A beautiful reminder of how we all want to be seen and acknowledged for who we are.

As moved as my ten year old was by the book and movie of Wonder, I suspected he might be blown away by a similar but true story (after all, Wonder is fiction). My hunch proved to be correct. For all the (certainly well-merited) attention R.J. Palacio has received, I would love to see some of that heaped onto Robert Hoge, an Australian writer who was born with a tumor the size of a tennis ball in the middle of his face, as well as abnormally short, twisted legs—and who narrates his inconceivable life story for middle-grade children in his inspiring memoir, Ugly (Ages 9-13). I just finished reading it to my son, and we were both left moved beyond words.

Robert is born healthy as a horse, albeit on the inside. On the outside, he has a massive bulge from the top of his forehead to the tip of his nose; his eyes are spaced too far apart; his nostrils are splayed; his legs are twisted and too short; and the toes which aren’t missing altogether are bent downwards. (For the sake of us readers, Robert likens his physical appearance to a child’s hasty creation of a sculptured face in clay, only one that suddenly collides with a big angry fist right before being finished.) It takes his mother a week (yes, a week) to summon up the nerve even to visit her son in the ICU. In fact, it isn’t until Robert’s four siblings beg their parents to bring him home from the hospital that his mother and father make the decision to keep him (at which point they never stop loving him).

Whereas Wonder is largely concerned with how Auggie affects and transforms the people around him, Ugly is more focused on the protagonist’s own struggle to come to terms with who he is and to find his unique way in the world (Hage says he wanted to title his memoir, “This is Robert’s big, exciting life of ugliness.”). Spanning birth to high school, Hoge approaches his writing—as he does his life—with dry humor and a disarming directness, which immediately puts us as readers at ease. (There’s a particularly hilarious chapter where he describes trying to pedal a bike without a knee joint; he ends up head down in the bushes: “My bike-riding career had started and finished all in one go.”) But Robert never lets us forget how different he is made to feel on a daily basis, both by the world and by the people around him—and how painful that difference can feel.

Like Auggie with his love of Star Wars and video games, Robert shares many of the same interests as other boys his age, especially team sports. And yet, too often, his disabilities prevent him from indulging these interests, regardless of how much effort he puts forth. He might fall on his face (literally), lose one of his prosthetic legs mid-stride, or be stopped cold by an interfering, usually well-meaning adult. I should mention that, in addition to being a memoir about a child with physical disabilities, Ugly is a fascinating glimpse into growing up in the 1970s and 80s (talk about hands-off parenting!); going to Catholic school (picture a nun trying to pull out Robert’s prosthetic legs from a swamp during a class field trip); and Australian culture (in middle school, Robert finally discovers his talent for “lawn bowls,” a competitive team sport typically favored by retired Australian men).

Robert’s awareness of the extent of his differences expands with age, peaking in that ever-tumultuous time known as middle school. In his previous years in lower school, Robert certainly encounters teasing, but his physical differences are quickly accepted by most of his classmates, and he is well-liked and confident, if somewhat naïve. (Our heart breaks when his fourth-grade love letter to a girl is rejected, and Robert tells us it never occurred to him until later that his appearance could have been a factor.) Nothing prepares him for the litany of verbal insults he faces on a daily basis in middle school.

For my son, the most fascinating part of the memoir was Robert’s “top ten list” of unflattering nicknames he grows accustomed to hearing during his time in middle school. Counting down from ten to one, Robert takes each nickname apart: discussing its origin, rating its originality, explaining why and how badly it hurts, and revealing how he “got over it.” Some nicknames, like Toothpick Legs, are fairly easy for Robert to rebuke in the moment (“They’re not made of wood!”); and some, like Go-Go-Gadget Rob (a nod to the 1980s animated series, Inspector Gadget) even get a few laughs from him for creativity. Others, like Retard, are a painful reminder of how people equate physical disabilities with mental impairment (“my brain worked quite well, thank you very much”); and Cripple is “so broad it seemed to cover all the very worst things I sometimes thought about my disability and myself.” But it’s Toe Nose—so chosen because in one of Robert’s early reconstruction surgeries, doctors use the bone and cartilage from his amputated toes to make him a new nose—that delivers the biggest blow, each and every time he hears it, and is the one name he “never did get over.” Reading through Robert’s analysis of these names, we not only get further glimpses into his incredible resilience, but we are reminded of the very power of words.

As it turns out, Robert’s peers are not the only ones to direct disparaging words at him. Adults can be just as painful. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the book, Robert shows up at an elementary school for a day of community service to help teach second graders, only to have the school’s principal tell him she should have been “warned” in advance about his physical appearance. When Robert apologizes, the principle says “good” and shows him the door. As the reader, I had to choke back tears when Robert goes on to explain that from here on out, he refuses to apologize for what he looks like.

As we get deeper into Robert’s story, we watch him mature such that his path becomes less about trying to fit into the world around him and more about owning his differences—or, as he consistently puts it, his “ugliness.” We witness his delight on the page the first time he realizes he can “use my disability to make people laugh.” To help his bunkmates win a camp talent show, he removes his prosthetic legs and walks around the stage on his hands for several minutes.

But the greatest testament to this evolution comes in the book’s final chapter (spoiler alert!), when Robert at fourteen shocks his family, friends, and us readers by refusing a monumental, long-anticipated surgery which carries the possibility of substantially improving the “normalcy” of Robert’s face, albeit at great risk. At once, Robert decides he is tired of being the clay in someone else’s hands, the canvas for another’s brush. “In that instant, I owned my face.”

I could trust myself to the doctors who had done so many wonderful things to get me so far. I could give them the chance to move me closer to normal, risks, rewards, and all. Or I could take my chances and make my ugly way in a sometimes ugly world just the way I was.

I knew I was ugly. But everyone is uglier than they think. We are all more beautiful too. We all have scars only we can own.

The series of black-and-white photographs which conclude the book, showing Robert as both a child and an adult, serve as a testament to this pride. They are a testament to the agency embraced by this incredibly insightful, brave, and witty soul, whose story reminds us that it’s okay to wonder, but it’s better to step forward and embrace one another.

 

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Book published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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