Recently I read three books with a similar premise. In each book the main character has a characteristic that sets him or her apart from others. The three books, in the order I read them are:
1. Wonder by R.J Palacio
2. El Deafo by Cece Bell
3. The Strange and Beautiful Lives of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Both El Deafo and The Strange and Beautiful Lives of Ava Lavender were honored yesterday at the American Library Association Youth Media Awards. El Deafo was recognized as a Newbery Honor Book and The Strange and Beautiful Lives of Ava Lavender was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. I was there in the audience when all the awards were announced. It was invigorating to be in a huge room surrounded by people who love and celebrate books. Wonder was published in 2012 and therefore not included in this years awards (I am just a bit behind on my TBR pile.)
I liked Wonder, but did not sob as so many others I know did. Maybe I was ready and resisted. Auggie is a great kid who was born with a "craniofacial difference" caused by an anomaly in his DNA. He has endured numerous operations and always felt his differences keenly. The book begins with the decision for him to attend public school for the first time. As one might anticipate, some of his experiences are uplifting and others are not. Some kids bully him and others befriend him. In fact a great deal of what Auggie experiences is fairly typical for anyone in a new school in 5th grade. What I liked best about the story is the avoidance of saccharine, contrived feel-goodness. I think the other kids' initial reactions to Auggie are realistic. Some are horrified by him and others get to know him and cease to be put off by what makes him different.
What I did not like, was the ending. I felt like the change in some kids' attitudes and behaviors toward Auggie was to see him as a mascot rather than really embracing him. Practically speaking this is better than being cruel to him, but it still makes him an object rather than a person.
El Deafo was fabulous. Hands down, no ifs, ands, or buts this was a really interesting look into life as a kid with a difference. This is really more of a graphic memoir ala Tomboy by Liz Prince than a novel. At age 4 Cece contracts meningitis and loses most of her hearing. She now has to adapt to life as someone with hearing impairments that affect every day interactions including those with family, friends, and teachers. El Deafo is the superhero name Cece gives herself and later shares with friends. This is again a story about someone who is starting in a new school which is difficult enough without hearing impairment. This one reminded me a bit of Smile by Raina Telgemeier because of the detailed attention to day to day life.
AND then there is Ava Lavender, who is born with wings. This is definitely magical realism in all its glory. I really liked it, and am still thinking about it. Probably too much like a former English teacher, looking for the symbolism. I will say, after reading, the title is haunting. I am almost at a loss to say what this story is about, but like most YA novels it is about the search for self, but in this case that self has wings. I did feel like there were some overtones of Chocolat by Joanne Harris and Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. These similarities are mostly connected to the experiences of Ava's mother and grandmother who get a fair amount of page time, which I enjoyed as an adult reader of YA.
Overall I appreciated the experience of reading about those different from myself. Certainly one of the benefits of reading diverse books!