R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is a lovely little book that examines what being different from those around you means.
Here’s a story synopsis: “Auggie Pullman was born with extreme facial deformities. He has been sheltered and home schooled, until 5th grade. His mom enrols him in Beecher Prep. He just wants to be treated normally, but the students can’t get past his deformed face.”
There is a very telling quote right in the beginning of the book: “The only reason I am not ordinary is that no one sees me that way.” Notice that this perspective does not include how one views herself. You might consider yourself to be perfectly ordinary; however, your ordinariness is defined more by how others perceive you than how you perceive yourself.
In this case Auggie’s facial deformity marks him out as someone starkly different and in no way ordinary. As millions of “Freaks & Geeks” will attest physical appearance is just one of the many reasons for being branded as a person who is different from the rest of the crowd. And of course the yearning to be a part of the crowd and to fit in is not merely in the purview of a 10 year old’s experience. All of which is to say that this story though meant for 8-12 year olds can be read by people of all ages.
Wonder alternates between different points of view – Auggie, his sister Vivian, his sister’s boyfriend Justin, Auggie’s friend Jack and Vivian’s best friend. This clever technique leads to an exploration of what being different means from all possible angles – the story becomes not only about the person who doesn’t fit in but also about the community around him. For instance, what does it mean to support and love such a person?
Miss Palacio’s world has a very clear morality to it: being kind and being courageous is more important than being right; the Universe is essentially benevolent – Auggie’s facial deformity is offset by the loving and caring family that he’s born into:
maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds.
Admittedly kids need to be sensitized to nuances inherent in situations that might make something like the above sound like a platitude but I strongly feel that there’s a place in today’s world for stories like these. Wonder encourages the reader to be brave and kind and getting to a state like that first and then taking on the complexities of the world doesn’t sound like such a bad proposition to me.
I also liked the simple prose and loved the feeling of being in the hands of a very competent communicator – the words and the thought-forms used are simplicity itself and yet simplicity does not mean a lack of vividness. For instance when Auggie describes the first time he puts on hearing aids, the words are devoid of any complex imagery and yet the difference that Auggie experiences in his hearing is loud and clear:
How can I describe what I heard when the doctor turned on my hearing aids? Or what I didn’t hear? It’s too hard to think of words. The ocean just wasn’t living inside my head anymore. It was gone. I could hear sounds like shiny lights in my brain. It was like when you’re in a room where one of the lightbulbs on the ceiling isn’t working, but you don’t realize how dark it is until someone changes the lightbulb and then you’re like whoa, it’s so bright here!
When the book starts Auggie’s classmates don’t know what to make of him other than the fact that he’s a freak. Through the course of the story they learn to look beyond his obvious physical deviance from themselves and come to know him for the funny, smart guy that he is. I liked this straightforward movement of the narrative as it allowed the bigger issue that the story was delving into be at the fore.
The one weak point in the story was the ending – it was a little unexpected and a tad too much on the sentimental side. I can however see the logic in it with the whole theme of being different brought to a fitting conclusion with [SPOILER ALERT – Highlight] Auggie being awarded the way he was.
Overall, I’d highly recommend this book as a way to spark discussions and explore some important issues that kids (and adults) have to face in today’s society.