R J Palacio’s Wonder (2012) is a perfect rendition of what I remember as the torture of being a ten-year-old. That first year of double digits, with all it implies about leaning towards adulthood while clinging desperately to childhood, comes these days with the start of middle grades: a special inferno through which kids must pass before they can get down to the “real” learning of high school.
What could be worse? Well, for Augie Pullman, plenty. He suffers from a genetic disorder similar to Treacher-Collins Syndrome. The normal thoughtlessness of fifth graders turns on him, with teasing and nicknames, shunning and behind-his-back whispers and giggles. In his first year at a new school, he has to face all this and more — but he also makes new friends, discovers inner strengths and a desire to be with other kids, and finds that adults struggle as much as kids do with how to be kind.
An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green (2006), is a funny road trip and love story, with a bit of complex mathematics thrown in. Recent high school graduate and erstwhile child prodigy Colin Singleton is trying to create a formula that predicts the arc of a love affair, based on his nineteen failed relationships — all with girls named Katherine. After Katherine XIX dumps him, he heads south with his friend Hassan and tries to figure things out. They end up in a small town in Tennessee (tempted to leave the highway by a sign advertising the burial place of Archduke Franz Ferdinand). Here, with the help of various locals, Colin gets his eureka moment, and also realizes that his memory of Ks I-XIX isn’t perfect.
Finally, L. M. Boston, in The Children of Green Knowe (1955) creates a friendly version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, minus all the psycho-drama. During the Christmas holidays, Young Tolly visits his great-grandmother at Green Knowe, the ancestral home (and by “ancestral”, we’re talking nearly 1000 years old). He arrives at night during a flood and must take a rowboat across a field to his great-grandmother’s home — I can think of few better arrival scenes in literature.
Great-grandmother Oldknow tells him of three children who lived there in the mid-17th century, and Tolly imagines he hears and sees these children playing in the attic and on the grounds. When the ghosts become real, Tolly finds himself sharing secrets with them. A mixture of ghost story and pastoral, this tale takes you back to England in the 1930s and the 1650s — a contrast that still makes me aware that every place I live or visit holds a personal history worth exploring.
Boston’s book is the first in a series, of which at least one volume is evidently difficult to find — a used copy of Adventures at Green Knowe is available at Amazon for $2,400.00! Time to start scouring the shelves of used book stores.