It is one of the most moving books I have read in a long time, and I am still pretty amazed at how the author wove so much complexity into a story for middle schoolers.
It is the story of a boy with a genetic craniofacial deformity who has been homeschooled through fourth grade because of his frequent childhood surgeries. When the story begins his parents have decided they think he should go to school for the first time for fifth grade. The story covers his first year in school.
It is told in first person, but the parts of the story are told (and in some cases retold) from several characters' viewpoints. The boy himself, his older sister, two of his friends from school, his sister's boyfriend, and his sister's friend take turns. Each narrator adds subtle new dimensions to the story.
The theme of the book is that we can all choose kindness, and this theme is developed through amazingly honest and poignant portrayals of middle school and high school social dynamics and family dynamics. The author excels at showing not telling. It never feels preachy or overdone, or like an issue advocacy book. But the messages are there loud and clear: Being nice is not the same as being a friend, doing the right thing often costs you something but it's worth it, everyone has something to be grateful for, peer pressure makes you stupid, but it's never too late to change your course, we all need people who love us unconditionally.
The book was convicting, laugh out loud funny, truthful, hopeful, and heart-warming.
Because I know some people are have stricter standards than I have, here are all the things anyone might possibly want to be aware of before recommending it to a child:
There are some gluteal-themed jokes revolving around the names of a teacher named Miss Butt and the principal Mr. Tushman. The word "sucks" is used a few times. A funny story involves the "farting nurse" who attended the main character's birth. A dog is put to sleep. One character briefly explains his views of reincarnation. It is mentioned that peripheral characters play Dungeons and Dragons at recess. There are repeated references to Star Wars characters and other popular culture items. Halloween is the main character's favorite holiday. Middle school students have crushes on each other and "go out" with each other. The fifteen-year-old sister has a boyfriend and it mentions him kissing her twice. There are two references (both by girls) to being flat-chested. A couple times girls are referred to as "hot." One character's father has been killed in the Iraq war. There is a brief mention of one character's divorced father getting married to his pregnant girlfriend, and another character's parents are divorced. There are a couple instances of copying homework and lying to teachers or parents with no repercussions. There are varying degrees of bullying depicted, some of which is pretty cruel.
Overall, it had very positive portrayals of family, parents, authority figures, and young people.
It was really thought-provoking and has so much fodder for fruitful discussion with upper elementary or middle school students. The book is so beautifully written that older students (and parents) can also really appreciate it too.