Did you ever see the play The Fantastics? In it, the female (adolescent) character says something like, “Please God, don’t let me be normal.”
We spend much of our adolescence, our lives, actually, trying to be just that—a normal, regular, part-of-the-gang kind of person.
And yet, the stories that pull us into the deepest emotional waters concern misfits, freaks, and odd-balls. Maybe the stories about people with external “abnormalities” speak to internal parts of ourselves we often try to hide.
Freak the Mighty, written by Rodman Philbrick and published by Scholastic, Inc. in 1993, is a book my sister used with her mostly middle school students in an alternative classroom. She described these students as “beyond” reluctant readers. Every day they asked to read another section. She feels the book was a bridge to those kids on the periphery.
The story is told by Maxwell, a student in L.D. (learning disabled) classes. Max is much larger and stronger than his peers, and he bears a strong physical resemblance to his father, who is in prison for killing Maxwell’s mother.
Max starts his story with, “I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for awhile, and that’s the truth, the whole truth. The unvanquished truth.”
Freak is Kevin, a bright, imaginative kid, whose skeleton cannot keep up with the growth of his internal organs. But Kevin is ready to go on quests, slay dragons, and replace his defective body parts with robotics.
When Maxwell first puts Kevin on his shoulders and they run from school thugs, the two become Freak the Mighty.
That’s all I’ll say now, except, if you read the book, I suggest saving the dedication for last. If you read it first, it will just be a dedication. If you go back to it at the end, it will probably make you cry and wonder.
Wonder, written by R.J. Palacio and published by Knopf in 2012, starts and ends as August’s story. August was born with severe facial deformities. He is about to leave the protective nest of home-schooling and enter middle school. August has no illusions about how he appears to other people or even about how he would react if he was in another’s shoes. He’s had to learn to differentiate between real smiles and “shiny” smiles, between thoughtlessness and cruelty, between pity and real connection.
The story grows and morphs into the story of August’s older sister, Olivia, whose brother’s needs have always been more immediate and more demanding than her own; and the story of Summer, a girl at school who befriends August; and Jack, friend or fake; and Justin, Olivia’s new boyfriend; and others who must decide the kind of people they will be.
Heartache, ambivalence, growth, and love abound. It is no wonder that Wonder is a best seller.
These two books, written almost 20 years apart, are timeless, deeply-moving valentines to people who connect despite painful differences, who find their strength within what seems to be weakness. Isn’t that what we all want?
Happy Valentine’s Day!