I don’t often recommend books, especially for children, who I think get enough force-reading from well meaning teachers, and from their parents, including me. But Santa’s coming and if, like me, you find yourself having to shop for that difficult age, young people who can think and laugh at jokes and who have opinions, I have two books I think the young readers in your life will inhale, and another that won’t make Santa’s sleigh and may prove difficult to source, but is worth persisting to procure.
The first, and my current favourite, is Wonder by US writer RJ Palacio, and it is indeed a wonder. It tells the story of Augie, a ten-year-old boy born with a combination of congenital anomalies resulting in health problems and severe facial abnormalities. Augie has been homeschooled because of his poor health, and now he’s about to go to school for the first time. It sounds awfully serious but this is the wonder. Augie is funny, making jokes with his dad about the principal of the school he’s about to attend, who is called Mr Tushman – Augie’s dad had a teacher called Miss Butt – you can see where that’s going. Augie’s sister, Via, who is the second voice in the novel, has had to put aside her needs because of Augie’s. His new friend at school Jack – the novel’s third voice – discovers he’s not as courageous as he’d like to be.
Wonder was recommended to me by Fiona Stager from Avid Reader bookstore, who liked the way we see different perspectives on Augie’s life. Fiona first recommended it for my son but once she explained what it was about I decided to read it first, I’m now ashamed to say, worried my son would be upset by the description of Augie’s physical appearance. I shouldn’t have worried. My son read the book and the character he identified with most was Augie. We all do. We join his team from the get-go. This is a book for both kids and grown-ups about feeling different and the meaning of courage.
The second book is Elizabeth Wein’s marvellous Code Name Verity which is ostensibly for young adults (although I’m an old adult and I loved it), telling a little known story of women pilots and spies during World War II. I came to this book because I was on a panel with Elizabeth Wein at this year’s Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Her characters 21-year-old Maddie and 20-year-old Julie (code name Verity) leap out from the page and take the reader on gorgeous flights across England and the Channel to France. I can see these two young women so clearly, their idealism and hope, their wonderful friendship. The wonder of this is the rollicking story that doesn’t flinch in the face of some pretty terrible realities of war.
The final book will be hard to come by in Australia given how weird the new world of publishing has become – you can buy Australian books more cheaply if you get someone to mail them from the UK but it's not easy to buy American books until they’re published in Australia. But if, like me, you buy your books from bookstores because you value the great service they provide to the community, you will be able to order Just Jake. You won’t have it in time for Santa - February's the release date in the US - but its very existence is extraordinary, so I wanted to put it on my list. Just Jake is a funny story about a boy who has a difficult older sister, in a new school that has a particularly craven bully. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, written in a voice that understands child humour from the inside. You see, the wonder here isn’t so much the book itself – which is very readable, don’t get me wrong. It’s that author Jake Marcionette was eleven when he wrote it. He’s just turned fourteen. It shows kids what’s possible in life as well as providing a read they’ll enjoy.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’ll be buying books as gifts this year. I can’t think of anything better. Reading fiction makes us kinder, more empathetic humans. And what a way to thank the few surviving Brisbane bookstores for making my reading year such a wonder.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 30 November 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!