I always say that if you want an accurate description of a person, ask a child. They don’t hold back on the detail – “He’s got a really, really big pointy nose, eyes that are a bit round but go down at the corners, a huge fat tummy…” But kids can also be mean. At a certain point, innocent descriptions or natural curiosity about people’s physical differences give way to deliberate and hurtful remarks. This is the basis for R. J. Palacio’s book, Wonder.
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevents him from going to a mainstream school. That changes when he is ten years old and Wonder tells the story of his first year at Beecher Prep. The trailer below introduces the story with some of the marvellous opening passages from the book –
Palacio writes with a lovely frankness that will resonate with her intended young audience. The book begins with musings (from Auggie’s perspective) about what constitutes ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’.
“Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.”
and yet in contrast, Auggie’s sister, Via, says
“…we’ve all spent so much time trying to make August think he’s normal that he actually thinks he is normal. And the problem is, he’s not.”
There are lots of subtle plays on the ordinary versus unordinary throughout the book. For example, after a few days at school, Auggie decides to cut off the plait he had grown at the back of his hair (some reference to a Star Wars character) because he felt it was a bit babyish to be so into Star Wars and that it would draw attention to him.
Children and teens reading this book are unlikely to pick up the finely observed detail in the adult characters – notably Auggie’s parents but also his teachers and other parents. However, as a parent reading Wonder, you are keenly aware of Auggie’s parents’ actions.
“Mom says by then they had told her all about me. She had been preparing herself for the seeing of me. But she says that when she looked down into my tiny mushed-up face for the first time, all she could see was how pretty my eyes were.”
What mother hasn’t held their newborn baby and seen only perfection?
There are a few take-home messages from this book, centering around “Always try to be a little kinder than necessary” and “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” Words to live by.
In honour of that excruciating experience unique to school kids of a certain age – “Who can I sit next to at lunchtime?”, with the added stress of having to open a lunch box containing an egg sandwich, I ‘ve paired Wonder with a (delicious) egg salad sandwich.
“Via had warned me about lunch in middle school, so I guess I should have known it would be hard. I just hadn’t expected it to be this hard.”
4/5 Wonder scores a four on the basis of its suitability for its intended audience – kids aged eight and upwards. My kids, all avid readers, sift their way through the fantasy, ‘wimpy’ and fart books aimed at them. Wonder is refreshingly different.