Wonder

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.

9 thoughts on “Wonder

  1. It’s not every kid – some stay younger – but quite a few, yeah it’s reality. I work at a public library in a small town and have had to 1. break up fifth grade girls fighting over boyfriends 2. break up middle schoolers making out 3. listen to elementary school age kids talk about their boyfriends and girlfriends 4. listen to fifth grade girls giggle and talk about which boys are “cool” and “hot” 5. give relational advice to fifth grade boys whose girlfriends are mad at them 6. host the teen parent (that’s teenage parents, not parents of teens) group. the 12 year old didn’t end up coming b/c her parents decided to take charge of the baby.
    It’s sad, but it’s life. I don’t think kids are necessarily really that interested, but everything they see on tv says they need a boyfriend/girlfriend and parents foster this, talking about boyfriends/girlfriends as young as preschool and how “cute” it is. Why can’t they just be friends??

  2. I didn’t really comment on the boyfriend/girlfriend issue in the book because it seems so prevalent in a lot of the middle grade fiction I read that I assume it must be the “norm” somewhere, somehow. (???????). Honestly, this is the single biggest problem I have in just handing over the reins on what my girls read. I don’t want them assuming it IS “normal” to have a boyfriend when they should still be immersed in American Girls, etc. !!!! It makes for slim pickings when you have a voracious reader on your hands. Why, oh why, can’t we just let them be kids? I get that authors try to write the world as they see it, but honestly, often what they write isn’t completely realistic (even in this book), so why overdo it in the childhood romance?

    Can you tell that this is a sore issue for me?

  3. I read this and had the same problem with the multiple voices – a few too many, distracting from the really good stuff here.

    As for the question of fifth graders having boy/girlfriends, when I was in middle school (mid 70s) in rural NYS, it started in sixth grade. This didn’t feel too early for me, and had the author ignored what’s been “normal” for decades that would have been a little off.

    • Thanks for the other perspective. I also remember back in the 80’s when I was in elementary school that there were a few kids that were “going together” in fifth grade and then certainly in middle school. But it was more of just something you said rather than really dating. The way it was portrayed in this book surprised me. I realized after I read it that I haven’t read much other middle grade fiction and I don’t have kids in those grades yet or in school outside the home so I don’t really know what the reality is. I felt like it probably is reality and the author portrayed what she knew but that I’ve just been sheltered. I also realize that it might just be that I really don’t want to think about my son who will be in 5th grade next year having a girlfriend or being worried about being popular.

      • There are always some who are very precocious, and others who just don’t notice or care, even through high school. Being popular will be far more important in fifth grade to your son than having a girlfriend!

        I also have been thinking about the “reading American Girls” comment – those books are not written for a fifth grade audience! As a school librarian, I can tell you it’s rare to see middle school students reading them except as ‘nostalgia’ reads – they’re really popular in 3/4th grade, then really not so much.

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