This debut book by R. J. Palacio has gotten a lot of great press and I’m guessing it will win some kind of award for best middle grade book this year. (It has been nominated for the Cybils in the best middle grade fiction category.)Much of the praise is well-deserved. It is a very good book with only a few small problems.
Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman a young boy who was born with a severe craniofacial deformity. Because of his complicated medical history he has been homeschooled up to the fifth grade. The book begins with Auggie entering a private school in NYC and explores what it is like for him to adjust to a new school, deal with bullies and how he works to be normal and fit in (like most middle schoolers but with more challenges).
Auggie’s story is compelling. Palacio is pitch-perfect in capturing his voice and he is a likable and sympathetic but also very believable character from the beginning. From my experience working with parents of kids who have serious medical problems I think she also captures the struggles of Auggie’s parents well. There is the normal angst over letting a child grow up and have more freedom that is made even more acute by an established pattern of being very worried about that child’s health and being rightfully overprotective.
Now for a few small quibbles. The story is told in first person narrative but from multiple viewpoints. This works ok when we get to hear Auggie’s sister’s perspective on being the sibling to a child who gets a lot more attention than you and all the confused and guilty emotions surrounding that. It also works well to hear from Auggie’s new friend Jack so that we can understand some of his actions better. However, Palacio takes this idea too far. We hear from Auggie’s sister’s new boyfriend and the sister’s estranged friend. Auggie as a character is so compelling we really want to hear mostly from him. The other characters are too distracting. The different voices are also not distinct enough so that much of the book sounds like it’s from the same perspective even though it’s supposed to be different characters.
Equally distracting to me was the social life of these fifth graders. I was truly shocked by the world portrayed. A world where being in the right social group is king and the boys and girls are openly dating. At one point Jack,a fifth grade boy remarks to Auggie about one of their friends “When did she get so hot?” I’m not completely naive, I know kids care about cliques and young teens date. But fifth grade felt young to me. I don’t have kids in private school in NYC or in school outside the home anywhere so I’m not sure if this is reality or not. I can only imagine that it is the author’s experience given the description on the book jacket blurb of Palacio living in NYC with her two sons. I do have a son not much younger than Auggie and I cannot imagine him describing any of the girls he knows as “hot” or of being interested in dating or in being popular. Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps he is sheltered due to homeschooling. I admit to being ok with that.
The social life of the fifth graders doesn’t really take away from the book’s literary merit but it did distract me from the main plot. A final small quibble is that the book is a little too neat. Amy compared it to an afterschool special and I would agree with that. There is a line between giving the characters hope and giving them all nice little endings tied up with a bow. Wonder does a bit too much of the latter. I think one reason people might like it so much is that we can read it and feel good. We can imagine ourselves as one of the “good people” who would see Auggie’s beauty inside. It makes us feel like we are doing something positive just by reading it and being on Auggie’s side. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it cheats us of what could have perhaps been a more difficult but more complex story. What if the bully stayed at the school and Auggie knew he had to continue facing him? What if Auggie wasn’t always so likeable?
Still, even with those quibbles it’s a very good book and well worth reading.