R. J. Palacio's Wonder is a miracle of a book. It's a middle grade title that makes you think, and makes you want to be a better person. But it doesn't feel lesson-y. It's an enjoyable read, filled with three-dimensional characters, and a fair degree of suspense. I honestly have no idea how Palacio pulled it off.
10-year-old August Pullman has never had a normal life. Because of a tremendously unlucky combination of genetic factors, he suffers from severe facial deformities. He spent most of his childhood having a variety of surgeries, and was home-schooled. Now, as Auggie starts fifth grade, his parents suggest that he try middle school. Auggie starts at Beechwood, a small private school near his home. Wonder is a chronicle of Auggie's fifth grade year. But it's not just Auggie's story. The book is divided into sections, some (including the first) from Auggie's viewpoint, the others from the viewpoint of kids whose lives intersect Auggie's (his older sister, sister's boyfriend, kids from school, etc.).
The shifting perspectives in Wonder help the reader to see each character, inside and out. Palacio pulls the different viewpoints off flawlessly. I never once had trouble remembering who was talking. I think that I could open the book back up to a random page, read a few words, and know which character narrated that section. Impressive.
Wonder inspired me to flag page after page. I understand now why my friend Mary Ann Scheuer, who wanted me to read Wonder, bought me my own copy, instead of loaning me hers. Because I want to keep my post-its in place, for sure. Here are a couple of the many passages that I flagged:
"Okay, so I admit that the first day of school I was so nervous that the butterflies in my stomach were more like pigeons flying around my insides." (Page 35, August)
"I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks." (Page 73, August)
"I've seen August after his surgeries: his little face bandaged up and swollen, his tiny body full of IVs and tubes to keep him alive. After you've seen someone else going through that, it feels kind of crazy to complain over not getting the toy you had asked for, or your mom missing a school play. I knew this even when I was six years old. No one ever told it to me. I just knew it." (Page 82, August's sister Via)
"WHEN GIVEN THE CHOICE BETWEEN BEING RIGHT OR BEING KIND, CHOOSE KIND." (Page 48)
That last quote is from a "precept" that one of August's teachers, Mr. Browne, presented to his class. It summarizes the whole point of Wonder, the idea that if you just think about what you're doing, it's possible to decide to be kind to people. Even (or especially) people who look different from you. Even people who you find outright scary or repulsive on first glance.
Random House has launched an anti-bullying campaign, inspired by #TheWonderOfWonder, at the Choose Kind website. People can share their own experiences with bullying, and pledge not to bully anyone themselves. The Choose Kind website is well worth a look, and Wonder would be a GREAT choice for a middle school classroom read.
But it's funny. I didn't think of Wonder as a book about bullying as I was reading it. It's not that the lessons in Wonder aren't fairly overt. They are. Mr. Browne's Precepts, for example, are clearly a device for conveying moral messages. And yet... Wonder doesn't feel like a "message book." I spent some time trying to figure out why that is. And what I came up with was that the shifting viewpoints in Wonder help a lot, showing the reader different perspectives on the same situation. Auggie's sense of humor helps, too. The middle school scenes and interactions are also quite true to life.
But the key to the success of Wonder? I think it's Palacio's unflinching look at Auggie's situation, and other people's reactions to it. Auggie's life is hard. It's always going to be hard. But he still has to get up every morning and go through his day. His sister, Via, is amazing and loving, but still displays the occasional cowardly human reaction. Same for Auggie's eventual best friend. There's no sugar coating on Wonder (as I had suspected / feared that there would be, when I heard the premise). Instead, Wonder is a realistic story, filled with the day-to-day suspense of middle school. And it's also a story full of heart that inspires readers to "Choose Kind". And that's a wonderful thing. Highly recommended for kids and adults, male and female, ages 8 and up.
© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).