Stories. Good ones. Bad ones. Ugly ones.
Stories that make you go aww.
Stories that make you mad and stories that make you sad.
Stories that stay with you because they don’t seem to want to go away.
I read a couple of special stories recently, of the kind that stay with you. Stories that were so good, I couldn’t decide which one to write about first. So, in keeping with the duality of languages and cultures that is my life, I thought I’d just talk about both of them. And explore the similar reactions and feelings that both evoked in me, despite being apparently very different. One is realistic fiction, the other is magically realistic, one was written in English (available in Italian now too) and the other in Italian (not yet available in English):
Acqua Dolce by Andrea Bouchard and Wonder by R.J. Palacio
I won’t go into too much detail, there are plenty of reviews around (10,020 on Goodreads alone for Wonder), I was just so touched by both stories, that I wanted to share my reactions to them. Having had the opportunity to meet both authors, I realized where the gentle and very noble kind of magic I felt in their stories came from. From them. That may sound a bit obvious, but for me the experience of meeting both authors was just as moving as reading their stories. I felt both in awe and moved by them at the same time. In both cases, R.J. Palacio at Edinburgh International Book Festival and Andrea Bouchard at Bologna Children’s Book Fair, I was struck by how nice (I’m going to be using that word at lot) and critically self-aware both writers were, and how they put so much of their own perceptions and feelings into the message they wished to convey. Both are messages with a certain degree of embedded morality, but are in no way a sententious exercise.
No empty moralizing then – just the desire to share an experience and learn from it.
Both stories, in fact, are based on real events from their own lives in which they were affected by their encounters – good and bad – with a young child: a chance encounter (that didn’t go so well) with a young girl with a facial disfigurement for R.J.Palacio, and time spent with a girl affected by selective mutism for Andrea Bouchard. These experiences set both authors thinking about the individuals in question, and what their lives must be like on a daily basis. Palacio chose to explore this by providing a very honest and poignant portrait of how 10-year-old Auggie Pullman faces life in a mainstream school with a facial deformity. From the by-line for the book “ I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” we immediately get a sense of how bad the condition is and how hard it is for Auggie. But while we feel sorry for him, the author doesn’t succumb to sympathy and cliche’, giving Auggie his own share of imperfections to keep any easy tears very securely in check. The opening chapters are narrated by Auggie himself, before the author switches to alternating voices, allowing us different angles on the same situation, as we hear from Auggie’s friends, mum and sister.
I’m not going to give any more away, except to say that the story reveals that, even though humans don’t always behave as they should, there are nice, brave people who in the end, with the right encouragement, will make the right decisions. In times of difficult parenting, criticism of schools, declining culture and eroded values, I was really touched by the strength of family, the strong and gentle ethic of the teacher who guides his pupils towards ethical behaviour with monthly precepts like “if you have to choose between being right and being kind, always choose kind“, and the feeling that nice things do eventually happen to nice people.
A feeling of niceness is a wonderful thing to take away from a book, and it is the lasting impression I have of both R.J. Palacio and her story. It was a truly nice read written by a nice person. The world is not always a good place, but being nice can make it better. I am going to try and be nicer, I thought. This is the lesson of Wonder.
As Neil Gaiman pointed out at Edinburgh International Book Festival, it can be healthy to scare children (calling it “controlled terror” as they explore scary situations in a safe environment) and R.J. Palacio does just this: she allows her readers to experience the same “scary” situation that she herself faced with her children, and invites them to look at these fears, examine them, think about their reactions then put them away again with a better overall understanding of how to manage them.
Andrea Bouchard does something similar in Acqua Dolce
(Fresh Water, a baby girl named after the magically unsalty sea water lapping on the shores of the enchanted island she was born on).
Troubled and inspired by his experience of selective mutism in a 3-year-old girl in Brazil, Bouchard weaves a heart-warmingly nice (!) tale of a girl – Acqua Dolce – born in the magical waters of an enchanted island in an exotic, faraway land. Her unusual birth gives her the magical ability to speak with animals, but unfortunately not with anyone else.
She is blissfully happy in the magical waters of the island, absolutely at ease with her animal friends, but totally unable to speak. Her family manages to escape the island before a terrible spell takes hold and keeps them prisoner there forever, but Acqua Dolce remains mute and struggles to adapt to life away from the island, away from her animal friends, and out of the water.
While Bouchard uses more magical elements than Palacio to tell his story, the language (and the illustrations) are as endearingly clean and simple and the journey of self-discovery as thought-provoking and uplifting. Acceptance, bravery and friendship are universal themes in both stories. Like Auggie, Acqua Dolce must recognize and accept her situation in order for those around her to overcome their prejudices and accept her. The courage she gains from this helps her find a way to deal with her situation, and with the support of her new friends, she embarks on a series of adventures in true Famous Five style which take her back to the exotic world of her birth, in search of answers, to fight her foes and to find herself. In the perfect mix of make-believe and matter-of-fact, Bouchard’s heart-warming tale – a wonderful return to classic children’s storytelling in my opinion – features real people, just like R.J. Palacio’s sometimes-flawed-but-doing-their-best characters.
Both books take the reader on a voyage through the emotions of growing up and the turmoil this can generate within a family, especially when the dynamic is complicated by physical deformity and disability.
I really enjoyed the classic Philippa Pearce-type mix of family, fascination and fairytale in Acqua Dolce, as well as the sense of humour that both of the main – flawed but human – characters displayed, despite their seemingly unhappy predicaments. Bouchard in particular makes much use of comic adventure and laugh-out-loud silliness, while still addressing important issues that both young and older readers will understand and identify with. Most of all, I liked the clean, simple language in both books, and the warm and optimistic feeling they left me with.
I did a little experiment yesterday, and I asked my Italian and British Facebook friends to describe Italy in one word. The first Italian to reply was a young economics graduate struggling to find a way into the ever-dwindling job market. She surprised me by defining her feelings about her country in the word hope. For Italy, in times of declining culture, shrinking economy and tragically corrupt political and economic systems, I think this is quite significant. Hope. The desire that no matter how difficult life can seem at times, something good will happen. That’s exactly what these two books and these two authors did for me. They left me with a sense of hope.
From Wonder and Acqua Dolce, I moved onto to some more depressing reads, offering intense, almost cartoon versions of Italy’s descent into today’s corrupt and tragically foolish reality, even going as far as to suggest that modern life “is like an endless rape“. But more about that next time. For now, to pick myself back up from the gloom and doom of good and bad Italy, I prefer to wrap myself up in the warm glow of a nice story and the power of a happy ending.
If you want to know more about Acqua Dolce or read a short excerpt in English that I’ve translated, click here. Acqua Dolce excerpt 1 We’ve been using it at school for two years now, and even wrote our own adaptation for a Primary 3 theatre production. We may even do an English version. Watch this space.
If you liked this and think it sounds interesting, then please like and share with your friends. Acqua Dolce is a book worth getting to know.