If you read only one book this year with your kids, that book should by Wonder by R.J. Palacio. The book moved me to tears. The story begs to be read aloud with kids because you’ll want to stop after each short chapter to catch your breath and discuss the clear-eyed issues of bullying and notions of beauty that it raises.
Wonder is the fictional story of August Pullman, a ten year-old born with a profoundly disfigured face as a result of chromosomal abnormalities. August, or Auggie as he is known, has endured 27 surgeries that may have scarred his face, but have not touched his pure and sweet soul.
Auggie is homeschooled until his parents decide it’s time for him to enter the greater world via the fifth grade at Beecher Prep. Middle school is an emotional minefield particularly for a kid like Auggie. What makes Wonder unique is that Auggie not only has inner reserves to draw on, but also has a family who supports him. This is not to say that his family is perfect, which is one of the very affecting and real touches that abound in the story. Fissures develop in his parents’ relationship over what is best for their son. How many of us as parents have disagreed with our partners about raising our children.
Palacio’s gentle realism unfurls into optimism. Stories about unusual kids who crave to fit in with their peers are often heart breaking. They come with a particular kind of loneliness that can be dystopian in its fear of abandonment and isolation. Auggie has a particularly tender relationship with his older sister, Olivia. This is a sister and brother who deeply love each other. But Olivia is very human too and when she enters high school she seizes the opportunity to start anew. That fresh beginning includes not being the sister of the kid with the ugly face. At one point, she goes to great lengths to exclude Auggie from attending a play at her school. One of the notable things about Wonder is that there is no judgment. Palacio not only empathizes with Auggie, but also with the people in his life.
No amount of direction from the well-meaning middle school principal prepares Auggie’s classmates for his disfigurement. When Auggie first arrives in school, his classmates avoid him. No one wants to sit next to him in class or be his lab partner. He’s shunned in the lunchroom until a classmate named Summer takes him under her wing. Summer is a fascinating character. She’s one of those sturdy girls who doesn’t aspire to be in the popular crowd. Girls like that aren’t as rare as some young adult literature would have us believe. Summer doesn’t have a disability and she’s not agonizing over how to fit in. She’s simply herself and at the end of the day she wins over her classmates without being invited to the right parties.
And then there is Jack, Auggie’s ally in school. Jack had been selected by the principal to shepherd Auggie through his first few days of school. The task is wrenching for Jack who is genuinely torn between liking Auggie and fitting in with classmates who refuse to touch Auggie for fear of getting “the plague.” Auggie and Jack’s relationship takes a sharp turn when Auggie overhears Jack telling another student that he would rather be dead than look like Auggie. Therein is one of the great takeaways of this book. There are people who love Auggie who are not always kind to him, showing the range of humanity inherent in all of us.
In a recent interview with Slate magazine, Palacio explained that the idea for Wonder came to her after she and her two young sons saw a girl with a facial condition similar to Auggie’s at an ice cream parlor. Her three year-old began to cry and her older son was shocked. Palacio immediately left with her kids to spare the little girl’s feelings. But the incident haunted her and she pondered what she could have done differently. “I was really disappointed in my response,” she said.
It took me a whole book to figure out the answer, which has since been confirmed for me by parents of kids who look like Auggie. I wish I’d had the courage to turn around and look at the girl at the store. Even if my son kept crying, I should have just said, “I’m sorry, my son’s not used to seeing people like you. What’s your name?”
By the end of the book the characters have regrouped, as many kids in middle school are apt to do. Auggie’s perseverance pays off and most of his classmates have softened their attitudes. Grit is a critical message to impart to our kids, but perhaps more importantly so is kindness.