Ten-year-old August, who narrates most of this novel, tells us early on that he won't describe what he looks like, because whatever we're imagining, it's worse. He was born with facial abnormalities that literally make people scream and run away, despite the fact that he's undergone numerous surgeries since birth. He's been homeschooled his whole life, and now his mom thinks it's in his best interest to enter a good, private middle school in New York City for fifth grade. (His dad isn't so sure.) At first, as we might guess, Auggie wants nothing to do with it. After all, he spent most of his early childhood hiding inside a toy astronaut helmet. But then, in a believable fashion, he decides he will visit the school for a trial run, and he enrolls. Because one of the first things we learn about August is that, helmet or no, he has come to accept the face he has. He doesn't pity himself. He doesn't believe his entire existence is a tragedy, and I think the main component of the reader's initial attraction to him is respect.
August comes from a wonderful family: Mom, Dad, teenage sister. Yes, they have their problems. Yes, Mom and Dad don't always agree. But all of them love each other fiercely. It's the love and the upsets and the loyalty and the mistakes and the acceptance that make them wonderful. They are doing a first-class job of raising Auggie without having to be perfect; they, like Auggie himself, send the message that life is precious, livable, and purposeful, even when you have a problem this serious.
Yet, now August must figure out how to cope in the wider world. And yes, some of the kids he meets are as cruel as we'd expect. But many are not. Auggie makes friends because of the good person he is inside, while at the same time some reject him because they just can't cope with his deformities. And we get to hear from many of the people in Auggie's world in their own words, because Palacio uses eight narrators in all.
This story manages to be full of hope without being at all Pollyanna-ish. I'm reaching the point where I'm going to start gushing and burbling, because so far this is my favorite middle-grade novel of 2012. And from a writer's point of view, it's interesting to note that several of these narrators are teens, yet the book was apparently (thankfully!) not seen as unmarketable for that reason. It is still MG, and rightly so.
For me, this book raises the meaning of rooting for a main character to a whole new level. It's about how cruel we can be, how kind we can be, how triumphant we can be, and how powerful love is. You will be cheering at the end, and do make sure you have tissues handy! If you can read only one MG novel this year, you could hardly go wrong picking this one.