I have been thinking today about what “good” means to me, in terms of books. When I used to run a book group at the library, it became very clear to me that different people had very different ideas of what made a book resonate with them. In fact, I got to the point where I could almost predict which members would like which books. There were those who read only for plot, and were bored by character-driven books. There were those who had to find a character they could like and identify with, or they couldn’t like the book. There were those who were looking mainly for “literariness,” which mostly seemed to have to do with lush descriptions. There were others who were mainly looking for a sense of place.
Now, I read pretty eclectically. I enjoy my share of plot-driven adventures and character-focused narratives as well as all sorts of genre fiction and so-called literary fiction, and, of course, nonfiction. But I realized a long time ago that what really gets me excited is a book that is, at its heart, about ideas. When I pick up a new book, I want to be entertained, of course, but I also want to be given something to think about, and I want to see something that is different from anything I’ve read before.
And I think a lot of the classics fit into that–that’s why they stay popular. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby are still read because you can read them again and again and still find things to talk and think about.
So, looking back at the list of books we’ve been talking about, I can see that I’m running true to form. What I like about Ask the Passengers is that it’s not just a book about a questioning teen, it’s a book that questions the whole idea of putting people into boxes. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is a mystery, but it’s also makes you think about what it means to leave home. Monstrous Beauty is a bit of a mystery and a bit of a love story, but it has a truly unique fantasy/paranormal aspect to it. Chopsticks uses a new format to tell its story. And Code Name Verity has multiple levels of ideas.
All of this is a prelude to saying what I find lacking in Wonder, by R.A. Palacio. I know lots of people are talking this up as a possible Newbery winner, but I don’t see it. Besides some internal issues that I have with it (characters who sound more like 7th graders than 5th graders, for one), it didn’t have that “zing” for me. Because: kid with facial deformity starts school; he makes some friends and some kids make fun of him; when kids from another school try to beat him up, friends and enemies alike come to the rescue; kid is now universally loved.
I enjoyed reading the book. I liked Auggie and his family. I even liked the message of being kind and not bullying. But a best book of the year? I want something more. I want new ideas.