Author: R.J. Palacio
Publication Date: 2/14/12
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Blurb (GR): I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?
R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.
August Pullman burrowed under my skin and punched me in my tear ducts pretty early on in this book. Maybe it was his Star Wars obsession, or his sense of humor, or his general spirit that captured me but it was probably all three—and so much more. As a kid with craniofacial abnormalities, he's heard it all, all the awful names kids (and adults) can come up with. He's seen all the horrified looks. Until this year, though, he'd never been to school. Wonder follows Auggie as he starts his year until he graduates from the fifth grade.
The story is told from multiple viewpoints: Auggie, his sister, her boyfriend, her sister’s ex-best friend, and two of Auggie’s friends from school. The technique worked for me in this case, as it was fascinating to see events from different perspectives and to feel what each character was feeling. I keep trying to decide which narrator I enjoyed hearing from the most but they each gave me something to think about: What it means to be comfortable, how much influence parents have on their children’s personalities, how taking one minute to do something for someone else can make all the difference. I sound like a motivational speaker right now. Treat everyone with kindness! Teach your kids to look beyond looks! Let’s all just take care of each other!
Middle grade books are hit or miss for me. I truly feel they must be some of the hardest books to write; children's books as well. Conveying messages to impressionable age groups while still telling an engaging and well-constructed story is a feat. I can see how some readers may view this book as heavy-handed or forcing moral values. I guess I just didn't see it. The book reads like what it is supposed to read like: A book about a young boy who is and manages to remain a wonderful and caring human being despite being subjected to numerous events that would make me want to go weep in my room. I think children are smart enough to know that not every child in Auggie's situation is surrounded with so many wonderful people. They go to school. They know that other kids are not always nice, especially to anyone who deviates from whatever is "normal" (if anything is normal). If books for children always told the truth, far more kids in books would be picked up by sex traffickers, be in abusive households, and struggle with food insecurity. Believing that the universe will take care of everyone is a bit delusional - that is not the case. But teaching children to believe that good things can happen to everyone and that there are more kind than evil people in the world? I don't see the harm in that.
There is a fine line between playing on the emotions of your readers and emotional manipulation. I’m not a big crier in books - I can only think of three or four books that have made me tear up at all - but I cried several times in this book. (On a plane, no less!) I think there was only one segment of the book that felt overdone and that had to do with the family dog. And while I may or may not have snuggled with my dog after I read that section, I didn’t cry because I’m not sold on the necessity of that portion of the book. However, I will concede that the dog’s character provided the perfect vehicle to introduce discussions of blind love and souls/bodies and those were highlights for me. (Hearing Auggie's thoughts about maybe coming back as a handsome man broke my heart a little bit.) The only other aspect of the novel that didn't work for me was the use of song lyrics in chapter titles and in the body. Then again, I’ve never been the biggest Natalie Merchant fan. I thought this book was wonderful (pun initially unintended but I'm leaving it in so I guess there is intent behind it now) and I absolutely recommend it to parents and teachers who would like to read something worthwhile and inspirational with children as well as to any readers who enjoy middle grade books.