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With 'Pony,' author R.J. Palacio explores the wonder of photography

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If you’re at all familiar with middle-grade fiction, you’ve probably heard of R.J. Palacio. Her 2012 debut, “Wonder,” about a boy with a facial deformity going to public school for the first time, was a huge success. It earned critical raves and a spot on the New York Times best-seller list, along with a movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts. Palacio followed that up with several more books set in the “Wonder” universe.

So the first thing to know about her new novel, “Pony,” is that it’s nothing like “Wonder.” Well, “nothing” may be an overstatement. This book centers on a young boy who is pressed to be courageous. It also deals with family relationships -- most notably the one between the main character, Silas, and his father. But as much as I’d hoped for another epic tear-jerker, this isn’t it.

“Pony” is a genre-bending story set in the mid-1800s -- a kind of Western historical fiction meets magical realism. When 12-year-old Silas’ father is kidnapped, the boy takes off on a quest to find him. He’s accompanied by a ghost named Mittenwool and a white-faced pony named… Pony. Along the way, they meet up with friends, villains and more ghosts.

And while the plot is entertaining enough, the real magic of this book is the author’s well-researched descriptions of early photography tools and even the counterfeiting process. Daguerreotype photos serve as beautiful illustrations at the start of each chapter. And perhaps the most touching scene involves Silas and his father attempting to photograph the moon.

Once again, Palacio explores themes of loss and pain, along with bravery, and the result is wonderful in its own way.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.