I’ve seen this book everywhere in recent years, with scads of glowing reviews, yet I’ve purposefully avoided it. I can only handle so many of the “social issues” books that are so popular these days. Even the better ones are usually too touchy-feely for my tastes, sometimes at the expense of a solid story. I recognize their place. They introduce young readers to problems and difficult situations in a gentle way. They foster sympathy and understanding. They bridge differences. They make the world a little closer, a little friendlier. I know it. As a parent and teacher, I’m glad of it. But as a reader, sometimes I just don’t want a lesson. I want a good story!
I’m happy to say this is THE BEST book of its kind I’ve ever read. I never felt sorry for Augie; I just plain liked him. He’s not the character with the misshapen face; he’s just a great character. The plot wasn’t constantly manipulating my emotions; it was just a super plot. Did you catch that? This is a fantastic book with a fantastic plot and a fantastic main character. That’s probably exactly what the author was going for. It’s exactly why I liked it so much. It just so happens that Augie looks different from me.
So what happens? All the reviews I’ve read have been a little shy in this department. I didn’t have a clue what to expect. So let’s remedy that for the remaining five people who haven’t read this book yet, shall we?
August Pullman is a ten-year-old kid who’s always been homeschooled due to the many surgeries he’s endured to correct a severe facial disfigurement, but he’s about to enter fifth grade at Beecher Prep. Within a few weeks, the shock of his appearance is wearing off for most of his classmates, but he’s really only made two friends, Summer and Jack. And this fellow Julian is sometimes downright mean. Then during Halloween, while August is hidden beneath a costume, he overhears Jack tell Julian that he’s only friends with August because he has to be. It’s a horrible moment because the reader, along with August, really wants to like Jack. It’s a major betrayal.
Eventually, Jack does redeem himself. When Julian calls August a freak, Jack hauls off and punches him. Jack and August reconcile, but Julian causes the rest of the school to shun Jack. And Julian’s mother does all she can to have August removed from the school. This great divide goes on for much of the school year, until most of the kids are sick to death of having to choose sides. It is pretty ridiculous, but it’s believable. And Augie’s so cool and normal and likable that I didn’t feel sorry for him as much as I simply disdained Julian.
Near the end of the year, the entire fifth grade class goes on an overnight field trip to a camp where outsiders harass Augie. Suddenly some of the very boys who’ve bullied August now stand up for him. It’s a traumatic, tremendous moment when they finally pull together and recognize August isn’t a freak; he’s one of their own. I know I gave too much away, but you would have seen the ending coming. It’s a little predictable. But in this case, the pleasure isn’t in the suspense, it’s in the flow of the story and the skill of its telling. Trust me, you’ll want to read this one for yourself.
Other reviews have been heavy on the “issue” illustrated within these pages. I want to celebrate it as excellent literature. It’s a wonderful, vibrant tale of the best and worst of people, written with considerable art and beauty. My very highest recommendation.