The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Lynnie, the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, is developmentally disabled; her parents institutionalized her when she was a young child at the State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. Although she remembers a fair bit about her home life with her biological family, her mental limitations prevent her from truly understanding the concepts of “forever” and “since I was a little child”; there is really only now, today and the nebulous passage of the seasons.

Homan, Lynnie’s friend and supporter, is not only profoundly deaf but….drumroll, please…black. In 1968, that last alone would suffice to keep the two apart to the best of society’s capabilities. The fact that the institution in which they’re both “living” strongly discourages contact between “residents” of opposite genders doesn’t help. (Contact between the residents and the staff, well, that’s another matter.)

Martha is a retired schoolteacher, now widowed after a marriage of decades and an equally long career. She and her husband Earl had one child, which died, though Martha found some solace and fulfillment in the children who came and went through her classroom over all those years. Fortunately, she has remained in contact with many of her previous students…

…which stands her in good stead when Homan and Lynnie’s flight land them, and Lynnie’s baby, on her doorstep one dark and stormy night. Officials from the school show up close on the trio’s heels, but reclaim only Lynnie; Homan has already fled, and they do not know that Lynnie’s given birth. Martha is left with a newborn infant, knowing nothing of its parents or the circumstances under which they fled; being a good and honorable (and lonely) woman, she acknowledges Lynnie’s unspoken request and cares for the child as if it were genuinely her own flesh and blood. She calls upon her old students for assistance. One has become a hotelkeeper and allows Martha to stay with his family as they fix their newly purchased facility. Another is an artist with a summer home on Cape Cod, in which Martha stays one winter. And so on.

I’ll leave out the intervening thirty years except to mention that yes: it does have a more or less happy ending—I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to read The Story of Beautiful Girl for themselves—I’ll just add that I’m glad there were exposes of the institutions in which these people lived, not to mention legislation that encouraged communities to incorporate the people in them out into the community. Not only is it the more humane thing to do—who doesn’t want to be a self-supporting, independent person to the best of their abilities?—but it’s also cheaper. Tax-paying citizens rather than a tax burden is the way to go.

Keep in mind that the novel is as much about the daughter, left with the retired schoolteacher, as it is about the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, Lynnie, and her best friend, Homan. The author’s choice to skip between the three primary characters’ viewpoints fragmented the story a bit, and her additional decision to skip several years between chapters left gaps in the sequence of events. Overall, though, it’s a powerful argument for mainstreaming people such as Lynnie to the best of their abilities, rather than warehousing them or more life-threatening forms of abandonment.

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What’s the correct way to react to someone with a severe physical deformity? (Keep in mind that chances are they’re not unaware of their appearance.) How do you handle it should your child react, as children will tend to do, with either a piercingly audible query about ‘that funny looking person’, or worse, burst into tears? It was just such an encounter that prompted Palacio to write Wonder…and yes, she includes that in the book, albeit from the perspective of the person with the deformity. She spent the rest of the afternoon not only chagrined at her reaction and that of her children but also wondering “How should I explain this to my children? What is the correct response? …and what must it be like to be that person, always aware that people are whispering about you, staring (or NOT staring) at your disfiguration?”

The central character of Wonder, “Auggie” (August) Pullman, was born with a severe facial deformity, Treacher-Collins syndrome. Now ten, he’s undergone something like twenty-seven surgeries, and still has considerable facial deformation; he still has difficulties eating, and choking is a real hazard. He’s been homeschooled until now, though as he reaches the fifth grade (both in age and in academic achievement) he and his family are coming to realize that it may be time for him to enter a conventional school. Not only has his mother approached the point at which she can no longer teach him—she’s terrible at fractions—but he’s also begun to mature to the point of wanting relationships outside his own family.

The main story arc of the book takes place during Auggie’s fifth grade year at a private school, Beecher Prep. As most astute readers will have guessed by about the second chapter in, yes: despite a pre-school year intervention from the school’s principal assigning him a couple of informal guides as he settles into the school, Auggie has to deal with the stares, the revulsion, the “teasing” and the outright bullying that we’d all expect…and not just from the kids. At one point, the parents of the Mean Kid approach the principal with a request that Auggie be withdrawn from the school as they do not believe he’s up to the school’s standards1. At least the kids are up front about it; there’s a “game” among some of the students that they have thirty seconds to wash his ‘germs’ away if they touch something he’s touched. As the year wears on, the more open-minded kids do undergo a sea change; at first, it’s only a couple of kids who will voluntarily spend time with Auggie, but by the spring, others come to tease him in an affectionate way: at one point, he makes a joke about being the basis for “UglyDolls“, and the next day the girl to whom he was speaking gives him a keychain-sized one with a note “For the nicest AuggieDoll in the world!” This isn’t universal; the Mean Kid Julian didn’t have his own revelation about Auggie’s condition which made him a better person. That’s only reality, though. Not everyone is going to come out a better and more sympathetic person as a result of knowing someone like Auggie.

Palacio shifts between several of the kids’ viewpoints: Auggie gets the most stage time, but his older sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of the kids at school also get several of their own chapters. This might be a bit disjointed for some kids, but I think it works here; it’s nice to hear what the other characters think. As a kids’ book, I’m guessing it’s pretty much on the mark in terms of plotting, characterization and reading level. Reading it as an adult, I did pick up certain “after-school special movie of the week”, the kind in which everyone Learns a Lesson and the Mean Kids all become better people, but that’s not necessarily a complaint!

What to read next? Try Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, and its sequel, After Ever After. The medical issue is very different—leukemia rather than an intrinsic part of the child’s appearance—but both concentrate on the child’s reaction to the problem more than on the treatment of same.

1Treacher-Collins, at least in Auggie’s case, has no mental component. It’s purely a physical issue.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

To begin with a disclaimer: this isn’t a sequel to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I thought it was when I first checked it out of the library, and so began slightly disappointed, but realized this isn’t the problem it might be…especially since I haven’t much cared for many of the sequels I’ve read previously. Rather it’s two stories woven together–one in text and one illustrated–which converge gradually, both physically and literarily, until the two have combined to be told in intermingled text and illustrations, just as The Invention of Hugo Cabret was.

Ben’s story, set in 1977, begins a few months after his mother’s death. He is living with his aunt and uncle and their children, while the adults decide what to do with his mother’s estate. Still desperately missing his mother, a single parent and the only one he’s ever known, Ben sneaks off to the cabin where they’d lived until her death, where he’s struck by lightning while on the phone. Already deaf in one ear, the lightning causes Ben to lose the hearing in his good ear, and he is rushed to the hospital in Duluth. Ben flees from the hospital to New York in search of the man he believes to be his father, with only an address jotted on a bookmark for the bookstore where he thinks his father worked…and not only has the current tenant of the apartment no knowledge of Daniel, the bookstore’s long closed.

He ends up hiding out in the American Museum of Natural History, having been smuggled into a dustily unused storeroom for past exhibits by a boy his age. After several days, the friend finally (re)reveals that the bookstore is not closed but moved…

Rose, completely deaf since infancy, is in Hoboken in 1927, living with her father after her parents’ scandalous divorce–people just didn’t DO that then!–but runs away to New York when she discovers her mother is performing on stage there. Her mother is horrified and furious; Rose flees from the theater where her mother’s performing to the American Museum of Natural History. She’s about to be thrown out when one of the docents recognizes her; he is her brother, Walter, who not only takes her in but insists, when their parents find out where Rose has gone, that Rose is to stay in New York with him. He finds her a school for the deaf, where she not only (at last!) get an education both good and appropriate but also meets the boy she later marries, Bill. She and Bill have one child, Daniel, who grows up to become a curator at the AMNH; he meets Ben’s mother during the course of researching a wolf diorama…

…and it is here that the stories converge. Yes, Rose is Ben’s grandmother, wondering about whether Ben was her son’s child even as Ben was wondering about his father. The book ends before the story concludes–does Ben stay in New York or go back to Wisconsin?–but they’ve found the family they wanted. And Ben and Jamie have found a friend in one another.

I must admit that I didn’t much care for the alternation of illustrations with text in The Invention of Hugo Cabret; though the illustrations were great and furthered the storyline, I always felt a bit discombobulated when Selznick switched from one to the other. Here, it makes much more sense (at least to me) as not only does it allow Selznick to tell two stories in one while minimizing awkward disjoints when switching between the two, but (please don’t laugh), the silent illustrations made sense in the context of telling the story of someone who’s been deaf all their life. Yes, yes, I know: text doesn’t ‘talk’ either, but the illustrations absent any explanatory accompanying text somehow captured Rose’s sense of the world around herself, at least for me.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what to suggest to read next, other than The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Any suggestions?

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

Ten-year-old Robin, son of medieval nobleman Sir John Bureford, has been left behind in his father’s London mansion to recover from an unspecified illness which has left his legs useless. His father is off fighting with the King on the English border with Scotland and his mother has left to serve the Queen; both parents assume that Robin is himself gone to serve as page in a knight’s household near the Welsh border. Unbeknownst to him, the (bubonic) Plague is sweeping through the city and has either killed the remaining servants left behind or frightened them into fleeing the area. When Robin, spoilt frustrated scion of a wealthy family that he is, loses his temper with the housekeeper, the only servant remaining to care for him, even she flees.

A day or so later, one Brother Luke arrives to collect Robin, having heard of his plight from one of the Londoners fleeing the city and passing through his monastery. After a massage and a bowl of fish soup, Brother Luke takes Robin to the monastery, where the boy begins to learn patience, reading, manual skills such as woodworking, and most importantly not to feel sorry for himself and to think of others before his own self. After he’s recovered somewhat from the aftereffects of his illness, Brother Luke and John Go-in-the-wynd take Robin to the castle household where he’d been intended to stay before his illness. The lord of the manor accepts the boy, despite his infirmity, as not only had he promised the boy’s father, but Robin himself had begun to prove himself able to perform at least some of the duties required of a page despite being partially paralyzed.

The Welsh lay siege to the castle, and after supplies and water run low, Robin volunteers to swim the moat and cross the countryside to the cottage of John-go-in-the-wynd’s mother, to send a message out to the neighboring landholders for help. He succeeds in reaching the cottage, and John-go-in-the-wynd succeeds in raising the alarm among the local castles. Some weeks after the seige is lifted, Robin’s parents return to the host’s domain, released from service to the king and queen and to reclaim their son, whom they have not seen for months. Robin is at first afraid that his parents will think less of him for his paralysis, which renders him unable to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a knight to follow the King in battle. His parents, like Brother Luke, reassure him that there is a way to find fulfillment in service for all of us; we need only find the door in the wall to permit us through.

This is another one of the older Newbery Award winners whose place in the modern public library’s juvenile collection is uncertain in my mind. (Academic libraries are another matter entirely, if they’ve got a program which studies children’s literature.) It is a more than slightly sanitized version of the Middle Ages; while there are clearly diseases, famines and not a lot of the modern niceties such as indoor plumbing and central heating, de Angeli does not delve into much detail. There are a few plot holes–I’m not sure why none of the adults thought to swim the moat under cover of darkness and fog as Robin did, but perhaps the enemy soldiers surrounding the castle would have been more suspicious of an adult…and besides, I don’t think that’s the point of the book.

Modern readers have complained about the lessons of stoicism Robin is forced to learn, and indeed in a modern softer society, it’s perfectly all right for a boy ten years old to not only express frustration at a disability but cry in fear once in a while. Robin seems to learn Brother Luke’s lessons awfully quickly–not just reading, swimming, and woodworking but “Be brave.”, “Don’t complain.” “Think of others.” “Do what you know you ought though it be frightening or painful.” but then it’s entirely possible Robin had begun to learn them already. Life, even for the nobility, wasn’t easy in the fourteenth century. I suspect that ten years old was far more grown in the fourteenth century than in the twenty-first, and indeed wouldn’t be surprised if Robin had already begun to learn some skill at arms when he became ill. (Read T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, for starters.)

As with many of the other Newbery winners of that vintage, I’d say “keep it if you’ve got it, but don’t go out of your way to buy it”. Unless you’ve got a cadre of bookish little boys whose reading abilities have outstripped their maturity, not to mention their physical abilities. Like Wind in the Willows and Maria Gripe’s books, it may give an interesting glimpse into a past kids of that age will know little about, even though it’s similarly cushioned.