Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (2013)
The Goats by Brock Cole (1987)
I didn’t realize that I had a thematic link among my recent reads until I was placing a hold on The Goats a couple of weeks ago. Wonder was lent to me in February after several people in my church supper club had praised it. Not long after that, Yaqui Delgado caught my eye while I was browsing my county library’s ebook offerings. The Goats was recommended to my children’s literature class over a decade ago by a professor – and I finally read it last week. All three books involve bullying in some form, and also feature great writing and fantastic characters.
R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is the most popular of the three books, with nearly 260,000 ratings on Goodreads. The main character, August “Auggie” Pullman, suffers from a severe facial deformity and is about to enter school for the first time. Despite the adults’ efforts to encourage his new classmates to be a friend to Auggie, he quickly becomes a social outcast among the other sixth graders. Palacio’s novel is told from multiple perspectives – Auggie, a couple of his classmates, Auggie’s sister, her boyfriend, and a few others. Through the switches in perspective, you come to see that everyone is on their own journey, with their own struggles, even as they are aware of Auggie’s particular hardships. It’s a lovable group of characters, and it’s a story that pulls on the heartstrings without seeming manipulative. I definitely got teary sometimes reading it – but don’t worry, it’s more poignant than sad.
Meg Medina’s book Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass was a rougher read, emotionally. Piddy Sanchez’ mother decides to move them out of their dilapidated apartment to a better one in another neighborhood. Unfortunately, this places Piddy into a new high school, and soon in the cross-hairs of that school’s most intimidating bully, Yaqui Delgado. Medina convincingly portrays how bullying plunges Piddy into a claustrophobic bubble of misery. The climactic confrontation with Yaqui Delgado is terrifying in its level of humiliation – but is fortunately not the end of Piddy’s story. Piddy does find a way out that is a realistic salvation.
I can’t say enough about Medina’s characterization in this novel, and how well she writes about all the different facets of Piddy’s life. Bullying may inform the main storyline, but it’s not the only thing going on in Piddy’s world. There’s a best friend who has moved away, but is not out of the picture entirely. There’s Piddy’s former neighbor, a boy who is of romantic interest, but mostly they bond over wanting to escape from their current lives. And there is the fabulous Lila, best friend to Piddy’s mother, who fulfills a much needed role as adult confidante to Piddy. I would read more about Piddy, her family and friends. They just really came alive through this novel.
As much as I loved the previous two books, Brock Cole’s The Goats may end up being my favorite of them all. The worst happens right away: following a long-held but not condoned camp tradition, two outcast twelve-year-old campers – one girl and one boy – are stripped of their clothes and left on an island in the middle of a lake. They soon decide that they have no wish to go back to that camp and they successfully escape from their situation. Knowing that the girl’s mother will arrive at the camp in a few days’ time (and not thinking through that she will be alerted to her daughter’s disappearance), the kids must figure out how to get by on their own.
Strangers at first, the boy and the girl eventually become inseparable friends, helping each other maneuver out of the tight spots they find themselves in. In order to get food and shelter, they reluctantly commit some petty theft – but, adorably, they keep a little notebook of their debts which they plan to repay once restored to their families.
For all that the children are rarely called by their names in the book, there’s a wonderful specificity to them and to the story. The girl comes from a single-parent home, and a parallel storyline follows the mother as she pieces together what’s happened and who comprehends more than her daughter gives her credit for. The boy’s parents are archaeologists and I liked how his memories of traveling in Turkey and Greece work into the narrative. I also identified with the boy’s picture of the forest as a representation of freedom. Trees make me feel that way too.
Wonder‘s depiction of bullying is probably the closest to my own childhood experience – kids making fun of me in cryptic ways I didn’t fully understand, being deliberately left out. However, Medina’s book so completely nailed the visceral pain of humiliation that it conjured some memories I hadn’t thought of in a while. The Goats rounds out this trifecta because it is about the moments of victory; it is about refusing to let the bullies have the final say and instead reveling in nature, new friends, and feeling the power of one’s own resourcefulness.