There's an ever growing pile of books I want to read…
Earlier this week, I took myself off to Waterstones Piccadilly for an amazing event with R.J. Palacio, Sally Gardner and Laura Jarratt, chaired by Katherine Woodfine from Booktrust. The theme of the evening was “celebrating difference” and the authors were discussing their books, which contain protagonists who are “not normal”, and what exactly it means to be normal anyway.
I have read all three books that were being discussed and should probably start by giving you a little introduction to them and a summary of my thoughts.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
I have some pretty strong feelings about Wonder. I’m not sure exactly how I first heard about it but I requested a proof from the publishers because it was about a boy with an unusual face, or as he puts it in the novel, “whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
My husband whom, despite his lacking the depth of enthusiasm for books that I feel, I love very much, was born with the bones of his skull all fused together due to some genetic lottery hiccup. He had to have a lot of painful surgery to prevent his brain getting unpleasantly crushed. I don’t actually notice this or see his face any differently to anyone else’s – I love him as he is – but it made me want to read this book.
And then it made me put off reading it for absolutely ages. That’s the trouble with books that hit a little too close to home. Sometimes you feel like you’re going to come upon a mine somewhere between the two covers.
Wonder is primarily about Auggie and his family. Auggie is ten and about to start real school for the first time. The world is not always kind to people who are different and the book follows the ups and downs of his first year at school.
One thing that I really liked about Wonder was that, although Auggie is the main character, it used lots of different character voices to tell the story. Actions that might seem unkind from one character’s perspective become more understandable when we know what motivated them. It’s also a clever way to show that it’s possible for different people to experience the same events differently and that what we see at the surface level of a person’s behaviour does not always necessarily reflect how they feel inside.
Auggie’s appearance isn’t actually described until quite late in the story so readers are forced to see him as a person first and a set of physical characteristics second. This is important because Auggie feels like a normal kid. For all that he looks different, he’s really just like everyone else. It’s other people who treat him differently, not he himself who is inherently different.
Judged as a children’s book (which is what it was written as), I think Wonder is really good. I enjoyed it and thought it was a satisfying read.
If I judge Wonder as an adult book, I do have to knock some points off. R.J. Palacio says that the book has been criticised for sentimentality but I’m not sure that that is quite what I want to say. There is an element in it of believing that everyone is capable of being kinder than many of us are, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially in a book for children. My problem is that, a couple of times while reading it, I felt a little emotionally manipulated. It was a bit like being in an audience that isn’t trusted to react correctly so someone holds up big cards saying things like ‘laugh’ or ‘cry’.
Also, a dog dies in this book. I know, spoilers, but I don’t like it when animals die in books. I wish I had known about that going in.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
I’ve already written a little bit about Maggot Moon in my 2012 roundup post, which you can read here. I gave it 5/5 and I stand by that score. It also recently won The Carnegie Medal (which is a big deal! Well done Sally Gardner!)
To talk too much about Maggot Moon would spoil it for you and I really think that you ought to read it (go on! It’s so good!) but I should tell you a little bit about the main character, Standish.
At the beginning of the story, Standish describes himself in the words of others: “Standish Treadwell isn’t bright”. It’s clear to the reader from the start that this isn’t true – Standish is obviously very intelligent, but it is true to say that Standish doesn’t think the same way as other people. He has trouble reading and writing, he can’t tie his school tie and he’s always a bit of a mess. He also looks slightly different to everyone else as he has two differently coloured eyes. In the Motherland, where Standish lives, fitting in and matching a certain physical template is very important and being different is not safe at all.
Standish’s problems with reading and writing stem from dyslexia, but when she was asked about this, Sally Gardner says that it was not intentional. She just sat down to write the character she wanted to write and, afterwards, someone pointed out to her that he obviously had dyslexia.
I loved Maggot Moon. Read it yourself and then come and talk to me about it, okay?
Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt
Skin Deep was not the book that I expected it would be. I thought that I was going to read a fairly shallow teen romance (For the record, there is nothing wrong with reading those – I like them too) but actually I discovered that it was a book of incredible depth and sincerity. It is a teen romance but one that also explores themes of belonging and difference. Also there’s a murder and murder investigation in there too.
Skin Deep is about Jenna, a girl who has recently been in a terrible car accident and now has a burn-scarred face, and Ryan, a traveller boy who has never known a settled life. Their first meeting doesn’t go too well. Nor does their second. Over time, however, Jenna and Ryan really come to rely upon and trust one another. I was worried when I started this book that it might be the story of how one “ugly” girl found self acceptance because a boy deigned to love her. It isn’t that kind of story at all.
Jenna and Ryan are both dealing with huge issues and they both support one another rather than having an uneven relationship. When Jenna was injured in the crash, her neighbour and best friend, Zoe, was killed and she is still coming to terms both with the bereavement and with the way her injury has affected her self-confidence and the reactions of other people towards her. Ryan is trying to break free a little from a life that revolves around his bipolar mum and also deal with what it means to have spent his life as a traveller with no-one else to rely on and nowhere to call home. He also has to deal with the way other people treat him because of this.
Neither character is perfect and I think they both really grow and change over the course of the book in very satisfying ways.
My only gripe about this book is the same gripe that I have about almost all teen romance novels. I know that when you’re 14, you feel like your love is going to last forever but, usually, it doesn’t. I almost would prefer some slightly less happy endings. Also I wasn’t keen on the cover and I thought using “Nothing burns like first love” on the cover of a novel about a burn victim was really uncool and thoughtless.
The Celebrating Difference Event
I’m not sure how much of this event I’m going to remember well or accurately. I felt like it would be rude to record the authors talking or to make notes at the time but what that means is that I’m now suffering from a strange kind of brain fog about the whole thing. I remember that I was really hungry because I came straight from work and didn’t stop to eat because I thought I might be late. I tried to get a cup of coffee from the cafe downstairs but there was a queue (I think – there wasn’t really any clear and obvious place to start queuing but there were a bunch of other people hanging around near the counter) and I gave up.
My friend Sarah (also a blogger) was supposed to come with me but was not feeling too good but I did meet some other nice people. I also remember that all three authors were really nice and approachable.
Let me tell you the things that stuck in my memory:
R.J. Palacio does indeed have a first name but I’m not sure how to spell it so I will stick with the initials.
There was a lot of discussion about what it means to be “normal” and about the characters that each author has created.
R.J. said that she was inspired to write Wonder after she was out with her family and they encountered a little girl who had a cranio-facial difference. One of her children began to cry and, not knowing what to do, she rushed away with them. She said that she really regretted that moment and it stuck with her and inspired her to write the book.
Sally Gardner started her story of how she came to write Maggot Moon with “I was on a diet” which got a very big laugh from the audience. Apparently, her diet was making her short-tempered and unpleasant to be around and she was told to sit down at her computer and she just sat down and wrote and out came Standish and the story of Maggot Moon.
I’m not sure that I remember everything that Laura Jarratt said but I remember her saying that Ryan was a surprise. She wrote the introduction of his character and afterwards decided that she was pleased with him and kept him in the story.
The authors were asked about whether they felt the characters differences became their strengths in the stories. R.J. Palacio and Laura Jarratt were both reluctant to agree with this definition. I think there’s something very problematic in the idea of “what makes you different, makes you beautiful” or the idea that characters were somehow better off because of their differences or because bad things had happened to them.
R.J. Palacio did say that she felt Auggie had a greater level of self-acceptance than would probably be seen in other children of his age and Laura Jarratt said that she felt that Jenna’s scars had given her a different perspective and perhaps encouraged her to be a better person than she was previously. She also talked about how Ryan might have turned out without his unusual upbringing and lifestyle.
Sally Gardner spoke about how Standish’s different way of thinking, his ability to “picture think” or see the layers of a situation and visualise how he could make his plan succeed, made him able to do things that other characters in his story, like his friend Hector, would not be able to.
One audience member asked R.J Palacio about the ending of Wonder, which she did not feel rang true for Auggie’s character, and R.J said that originally she did write a slightly different ending for the book, which her editor hadn’t liked. She said that she had done the best that she could. She was very gracious about the criticism and I think I really admire her for not being defensive or getting too visibly upset.
The authors were also asked whether they had felt any pressure to “get it right” and they said that they had. Laura, in particular, said that she felt that she had to get it right or she would be doing a disservice to all the teenagers who had cried in her office over the years (She works in a school). She told us about watching a documentary about a burn victim and thinking to herself “yes, that’s in chapter…” when it mentioned things that she had covered in the book.
One audience member spoke about trends in publishing and the authors spoke about how it takes a very long time from writing a book to it actually appearing in shops, which means that it’s not really sensible or possible to write for a trend because by the time your book is actually published, readers will have moved on to something else.
They also offered advice for aspiring writers which was to write “the story that burns inside you”. They said that if you try to write just for money, it will show in your writing and people won’t enjoy it as much.
They also signed after the event and Laura Jarratt was nice enough to sign the weirdly faulty page of my copy of Skin Deep:
I had a really nice time and I’m really glad that I went.