Wonder by R. J. Palacio

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“‘…But what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle-school experience,’ he continued, ‘is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God'” (Palacio 2014, p. 301).

This book, in my opinion, is a true gem, dealing with a number of real-world issues in a way that is both entertaining and profound. I’d heard wonderful things about this book when it first came out, and it was always a hit at the bookstore where I used to work. Despite this, I never had a chance to read it, and now that I have I can’t believe I waited so long to give it a try. I knew it dealt with themes of friendship and bullying, of course, but I didn’t understand quite how well it handled these subjects until I read it for myself. Wonder has come to be one of absolute my favorite children’s books, simply because it speaks to the humanity in all of us, reminding us that it’s important to be kind and compassionate to others no matter their circumstances.

Wonder follows the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a young boy with a big heart and a loving family. Lovingly nicknamed “Auggie” by those closest to him, August is anything but your average kid. Born with a rare genetic condition known as “Treacher Collins syndrome,” Auggie has been plagued with health issues his entire life. Even after a number of surgeries and medical treatments, Auggie still looks different from other children his age, something that has led him to a life of stares and ridicule. Auggie’s many health concerns have also kept him from attending public school… at least until now. At the beginning of his fifth grade year, Auggie’s parents convince him to attend Beecher Prep Middle School, a prestigious school for gifted children. Though he is apprehensive at first (he doesn’t want to be seen as the “freak” at his school), Auggie decides to give school a try, knowing that he will likely face a number of new challenges when mingling with children his own age. What follows is a heart-warming story about friendship, perseverance, and having the courage to be who you are in a sometimes scary and unsympathetic world.

As is often the case when I’ve just read a particularly profound book, I find it hard to process my thoughts when it comes to Wonder. I’d expected Auggie’s story to be touching, but I had no idea just how much the other characters in the story would affect me. There are so many wonderful characters in this book, characters whose thoughts and feelings we get to experience right alongside Auggie’s. I loved getting the different perspectives, as it helped to see how each character was feeling about particular moments in the novel. For example, Jack Will (Auggie’s best friend in school) upsets Auggie at one point in the book by saying some incredibly nasty and hurtful things. We later learn, however, that he comes from a relatively poor family, and is desperately trying to fit in with the “popular crowd” when he says these things, completely unaware that his friend can hear them. The story is never quite what we think it’s going to be initially; characters that at first seem selfish or uncaring turn out to be battling their own very real demons, adding an element of humanity to these characters that many children’s stories seem to lack.

Admittedly, there were parts of this book that had me tearing up, such as the scene in which Daisy (the family dog) dies. As an animal lover, witnessing the death of a beloved pet, even a fictional one, really got to me. Even worse was the following quote: “And I wondered how it would feel to be in heaven someday and not have my face matter anymore. Just like it never, ever mattered to Daisy” (p. 227). I couldn’t help it; I lost it when I read this quote. One of the major themes in this book is the importance of looking past someone’s appearance in  order to see the true heart within. As anyone who has a pet will understand, animals have already mastered this. Their love is unconditional, so it doesn’t matter to them what you look like. It broke my heart to see Auggie lose his pet, especially when she was one of the few comforts he had in life. To me, her death made the story all the more real, adding an element of loss to an already moving novel.

There were many times throughout the book that I found my heart breaking for Auggie, however, and I was reminded that life can be extremely cruel to the most vulnerable of us sometimes. As Justin says near the end of the novel, life is a lot like a lottery, where some of us are dealt better numbers than others. While Auggie was dealt a rough hand, however, Justin also notices that he has been granted many blessings in life:

“…If it really was random, the universe would abandon us completely. And the universe doesn’t. It takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. Like with parents who adore you blindly. And a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. And a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. And even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. Maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. The universe takes care of all its birds” (p. 204).

Even though Auggie faces many challenges that other children don’t, the novel shows us that his life can still be wonderful at times. This, to me, is there the humanity of this story shines through the most: in profound yet quiet realizations like the one above. This book, while written for children, has lessons that are useful to each of us, reminding us that the universe can be both a cruel and beautiful place at times.

Perhaps my favorite lesson in this story, however, was the lesson that not everything is black and white. There are no truly “evil” characters: even Julian, the designated “bully” of the novel, is more a product of his sheltered upper-class upbringing than a truly awful character. The characters are also real; Via, Auggie’s sister, is loving, patient, and understanding, but even she has moments where she wishes she could be the center of her parents’ affection. This book, to me, depicts real people rather than caricatures, showing us that nobody is perfect; everyone says things at times that they don’t mean, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has flaws. Even Auggie, the hero of the story, loses patience and lashes out at his parents at times. Children need to see themselves reflected in literature, and even if they don’t suffer from the same health issues as Auggie, children can easily relate to the struggles of trying to navigate a new school.

For many students, middle school is the worst transition, as everyone is trying to grow up too quickly. While Auggie’s unique situation makes it difficult for him to adapt, the novel proves that nobody is above dealing with the hardships of transitioning to a new school or growing up. Though Auggie’s appearance plays a large role in the book, many other characters face challenges as well. For example, Via must deal with a friend drifting away from her, and Via’s friend Miranda has to deal with her parents’ nasty divorce. As I said before, many of the characters who seem cold or rude at first are actually just dealing with their own private struggles, struggles that are revealed as the novel progresses. The novel is much like the proverbial “onion” in the movie Shrek; there are many layers to be dissected. Wonder is about bullying, but it’s also about family, friendship, healing after death, divorce, and a number of other heavy topics. We see more than one character face his or her demons, and each one has a unique perspective on life that adds depth to the story.

I also appreciated how many different types of families are showcased throughout the novel. Auggie’s family is more traditional, with two loving parents, a supportive sister, and a dog. As we see throughout the story, however, many children are dealing with unsupportive parents (such as Justin), absent parents (such as Miranda), or even overbearing parents (Julian). Auggie may have unique struggles, but he is lucky compared to some of his classmates, as he was blessed with a highly supportive and loving family. This novel flips the idea of “privilege” on its head, reminding us that the grass always seems greener on the other side. Auggie longs to look normal, while kids like Miranda and Justin long to have a family like his. Along with teaching us the importance of kindness and friendship, this book reminds us to count our blessings every day, as we may have something that others would give anything for.

Overall, I absolutely adored this book, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a touching story with incredibly real characters. Auggie’s is the type of story that will stick with me forever, reminding me to be compassionate, patient, and kind to everyone I meet. After all, we never know what demons someone is battling; sometimes one has to walk the footsteps of another to discover the humanity that each of us shares.

Reference:

Palacio, R. J. (2014). Wonder. Random House USA.

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