R. J. Palacio
Alfred A. Knopf
This book has heart: real, unadulterated "heart" without being preachy, cheesy, or dumb. And that, I like. I like very much. I love that a book this length (close to 300 pages) is so readable and will really appeal to the middle school audience it's geared for. And I love that this book emphasizes kindness. In fact, the "point" of the whole book reminds me of another book I cherish; I keep hearing Atticus Finch tell Scout in my mind, "You can't judge a person until you walk a mile in his skin." Only, in Wonder, we'd have to change that to, "in his face."
You see, the main character of this book is a kid named August, Auggie for short, who was born with severe facial abnormalities (including, but most certainly above and beyond, a cleft palate; his entire face and ears have been affected--grotesquely). And Auggie is 10 when the book opens, having survived more surgeries and treatments and therapies than most of us will ever experience, and is about to go to school for the first time. Think back with me, if you will, to your own middle school experience. Now imagine going to middle school, to a NEW school, for the first time with a completely disfigured face. Uh-huh. You get the picture.
What this book does well is partly the way everyone can relate to Auggie, disfigured face or not. Palacio captures that essence of middle school (everyone's looking at me, everyone's talking about me, if I don't talk with the right people/sit with the right people I won't be popular, some parents are as mean and cutthroat as their kids, teachers are still nice and I like them even if it's not "cool" to hang out with them, and... I still need my mom and dad even though they're not cool either). Remember those feelings? Auggie suffers more than I certainly ever did, and I found myself feeling convicted over and over again for the ways in which I've reacted to people who are obviously handicapped or different looking; there are also plenty of times, I'm ashamed to admit, when I wasn't as nice as I should have been to someone because I was afraid of what others might think. One of the strengths of this novel is the way those ordinary feelings and experiences are thrown into such sharp relief because they're dramatized through Auggie's experiences.
But Palacio doesn't stop there. She gives us the dynamics behind the scenes. We get to hear from Auggie's sister Via and see what being a sibling of a special needs kid might be like. We hear from his best friend after a stupid betrayal (haven't we all been guilty of saying things to impress people--even if they're mean and untrue?). We hear from another friend of Auggie's, Via's boyfriend, a longtime friend of the family. These other points of view are well done, I think.
The ending is a bit warm and fuzzy in some senses, but it's completely believable given what has transpired throughout the course of the book. Stuff happens to Auggie. Some of it's heart-breaking, and some is heart-warming. Chapters are short, the plot kicks off right at the beginning, and there are not too many pithy, "poignant" statements. Myriad references to contemporary culture as well as a nice sprinkling of middle school humor make this a book kids today will pick up and read easily. And, hopefully, they'll appreciate Auggie's story and the points at the end regarding that simplest of virtues: kindness. And, hopefully, they'll be reading this book around someone with whom they can discuss real kindness, the source of our ability to be kind and the reasons why should be kind in the first place.
Advance review copy from netgalley; cover image from goodreads
Things to Note/Discuss
- You can hardly miss this point if you even read the summary of this novel, but it's worth pointing out just in case! How do we judge other people before (and even after) we know them?
- How do the misunderstandings between friends happen in this book? Could they have been prevented? If so, how?
- What is the hardest thing you've ever done in order to be friends (or stay friends) with someone?
- Why should we be kind to people? (Auggie's story gives new emphasis to what it really means to be made in the image of God, doesn't it?) Who gives us this ability? (You might consider such verses as, "Be ye kind, one to another, just as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven us")
- What are ways you can encourage people you know? people in your classes? Can you think of people who might need an extra does of encouragement or kindness?
- A great parallel book to this is A View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg in which a teacher is handicapped and students are kind to her and to each other.