Wonder. R. J. Palacio. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012. 320 pp.
Wonder is a fictional account of a ten year old boy named August (Auggie) Pullman and the adults and children who surround him. Auggie was born with several severe deformities. Auggie’s deformities are facial and thus highly visible. This story drops us into the day of Auggie’s first visit to his new school Beecher Prep which is clearly an independent private middle school (grades 5 – 8) in New York City. Until this point, due to his conditions, Auggie has been home schooled. We get the sense that Auggie’s mom is very nervous about Auggie’s insertion into school and that she has taken extraordinary measures to make sure that this experience will go well. The story does not, however, begin on the first day of school. The head of the middle school at Beecher Prep a man named Mr. Lawrence Tushman and Auggie’s parents have arranged for Auggie to spend a day in the building prior to the school year. First, it should be noted that it did not escape Auggie or his father that the head of the school’s name was Tushman. The introduction of sophomoric humor at this point is an essential moment of levity that keeps the reader from becoming overly sad about Auggie’s condition or the seriousness that this transition may entail. Fifth grade boys and their fathers are not above “butt jokes”. Second, Tushman has had his teachers carefully select a group of students to be part of easing Auggie’s transition into the school and those students are present on this orientation day. This group will form the ensemble cast for the novel.
Admittedly, the first chapter seemed a bit like it has been done before. It is no longer a novelty to choose a childhood character with a specific disability and tell the story in first person from their point of view. Immediately Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came to mind. That impression of “been there – done that” lasted exactly one chapter. At this place in the text, the point of view shifts abruptly to Auggie’s sister Olivia who we learn quickly is called by her friends Via. Via’s voice is notably different from Auggie’s and this is where the reader gets drawn in. Via is a smart critical thinker who has had a recent mysterious shift in friends that is beyond her control and is just trying desperately to have a normal adolescent life. The reader is literally shifted into this girl’s head without warning. Via is a truly good person who is recognizing that her life, to this point, has been overshadowed and consumed by her high-maintenance younger brother. On one hand, Via loves Auggie and on the other, she resents that she has no choice but to be Auggie’s sister. Via needs the attention and guidance of caring adults and it is hard to get because there is only so much to go around. You learn in the story that Via had all the attention of her grandmother who realized that Via was the one being neglected, but shortly afterward, you also learn that this grandmother recently died. Via is very astute. She saw her mother crash when the grandmother died. She also recalled a very touching moment of seeing her mother standing outside Auggie’s door just watching and waiting. Via asked the clawing question where she wondered aloud to the reader whether or not her mother ever stood outside her door like that.
Via is a very important character in this book. Via is as close as we come to having a faithful storyteller. Via has seen the entirety of Auggie’s life from the outside and is pretty honest about what happened and how she has felt and reacted to this. It is primarily through Via that we learn to understand the workings of the Pullman household. We learn about how the mother and father think because of Via and we learn that Auggie is living in a bit of a bubble designed to protect him, but is also insulating him from reality. A very important anecdote here involves the moment when the family dog dies. Via has been apart of this conversation for weeks and Auggie is oblivious to the fact that the dog is dying at all. Via has probably one of the most authentic relationships with Auggie in the story. She sees him warts and all and knows that he is much more than his deformities. She is so emphatic that she picks up on the small signs that others might miss that alert her to the fact that something is going wrong with Auggie.
We get to see life also through the eyes of several other children. Never the adults, but only the children. Three of the key ensemble players are Jack Will, Summer and Julian. Jack and Julian were two of the children who were part of Auggie’s orientation to Beecher Prep. We only get the points of view of Jack and Summer. Julian is always a third person character. Jack is probably Auggie’s closest friend. Their friendship is remarkable ordinary. They are able share interests and build a bond over this. Auggie as written is highly intelligent but disfigured, Jack is ordinary but struggles academically. There is a mutual cooperation here. There is a point in the text where Auggie overhears a conversation between Jack and Julian that is disheartening. Julian, our local bully, is pressuring Jack about his friendship with Auggie. Julian is an abelist, in that he sees Auggie who has a deformity as somehow inferior. In this context he is pressuring Jack about his friendship with Auggie. At some point, Jack caves and says that he didn’t choose Auggie to be his friend, but rather he did what Mr. Tushman asked them to do this during the orientation and that Auggie just kept hanging around. This was a blow to the gut for Auggie. His best friend was an apparent fraud.
Summer is the bright and shining unquestionably good person in this story. Summer is Auggie’s friend with no hesitation. His deformity in no way gets in the way of this. Summer was not put up to this friendship by any adult, but of her own volition she befriended Auggie. She does not pity Auggie, she is very much a true friend. Summer fares much better than Jack when her loyalty is tested. When she is encouraged by another girl to stop hanging around Auggie in order to attract Julian’s attention and affection she gets mad and leave the party. Later she confronts the same behavior. Summer is unwavering in her support of Auggie. She invites him into her home and becomes a frequent visitor of the Pullman house. Summer is also the one who finally causes the blow up between Auggie and Jack to end. She keeps her word to Auggie that she won’t tell Jack why he’s mad, but at the same time lets slip just enough of a detail to Jack in order to give him the ability to confront the issue and make peace with Auggie.
Once this peace is made, Auggie is assaulted in an all out war. In a way, Auggie, Jack and Summer are the Harry, Ron and Hermione of Beecher Prep and Julian is its Draco Malfoy. Julian is the affluent kid who knows that people step lightly around him in this independent private school. He has surrounded himself with students who will take his side and do his bidding. The meanness toward Auggie and indirectly Jack and Summer heats up to a boiling pitch. Students in the fifth grade are clearly listed as supporting Auggie, supporing Julian or on the fence. There is a bit of a comedy relief when the “two Maxes” who spend their time playing Dungeons and Dragons are consistently seen as not taking sides, but who may be won over. The war continues through most of the school year and gradually through a series of unrelated events Jack, Auggie, and Summer continue to gain ground.
Though there is not a chapter where we get inside the head of any of the adults, there is a brief sharing of emails exchanged between them. It is through these emails that we learn where Julian’s abelist thinking has its root. The source of these emails is that, after much provocation, Jack Will hits Julian. According to the rules Jack is to be expelled. Jack does not explain his actions but does apologize for what he did. Mr. Tushman being fairly keen to what has happened manages to keep Jack in school. Julian’s mother uses Tushman’s negotiations as a way to bring up her displeasure with Auggie’s matriculation at Beecher Prep. She contends that Beecher Prep is not an “inclusion school” and that Auggie should not have been admitted. This is where Tushman deftly draws a line between deformity and disability. Auggie is academically successful, in fact more academically successful than many of his peers at Beecher Prep. It is clear in her tone that she believes that her wealth can be used to hold sway and have this “undesirable” child removed from her son’s school. It should be noted that in the story Jack never says that he hit Julian protecting Auggie. The suggestion that the fight was over Auggie is completely brought to the table by Julian’s mother and no one else. From this it can be inferred that she has been looking for an excuse to bring this up. She loses her case. We learn later that Julian will be withdrawn from Beecher Prep at the end of the year and will be attending a different school.
There are other substantial pieces of this story that center on less central characters. Via has a friend Miranda who is trying to fit in and destroying relationships along the way. You learn that Miranda has been like a big sister to Auggie since his younger days and she is ultimately the source of a space helmet that Auggie wore when he was little that had since mysteriously disappeared. Only later do we learn that the beloved space helmet was thrown away by Auggie’s father who couldn’t stand that it hid is face. He didn’t want his son to feel as though he had to hide. We learn about Justin, Via’s boyfriend, who is learning to be comfortable just being himself. He is challenged at first to deal with his own reactions to Auggie, but is able to overcome this to be close to Via. He lets her encourage him to push his boundaries, and ultimately in a comical way becomes a bit of a protector and mentor for Jack Will and Auggie during “the war”. The stories enter into and out of each other in a well-orchestrated way. Each shift in point of view manages to give clarity to the ones that were shared in the earlier chapters.
The most notable event in book surrounds the fifth grade’s visit to an over-night camp. There is an episode in this where Jack Will and Auggie end up off the beaten path and come upon a group of older students from another school. This episode goes well past teasing into an actual assault on Auggie. Auggie prior to this was fit for a set of highly technical hearing aids. These disappear during the episode. This is the worst nightmare for all of Auggie’s advocates. It is clear, though, that everyone, when push comes to shove, has Auggie’s back. Ultimately, the hearing aids are found broken in the locker of one of the perpetrators and justice is had. However, what is more significant is that the delicateness of Auggie’s situation is brought into the center of the story and Auggie is shown not to be as fragile as he seems. This event immediately leads to 5th grade graduation and the resolution of our story. We learn in the resolution that Tushman was very much aware of the events of the year and allowed Auggie to stand on his own. This is very rewarding in that Auggie was not helped through his 5th grade year, and because of this Auggie could take credit for his own transition from the sheltered homeschool reality to the full impact of being a middle-schooler and all the drama which that can entail.
If you have a young reader and this book is not part of their curriculum you should not hesitate to read this text with your child. It is an excellent first person account that gives a fairly realistic view of what it is be a young person in an affluent school today. One of the challenges that this book has is its socio-economic limitations. Yes, there are students of color, bi-racial students, and students of limited means in this text, but the setting itself, a New York City independent private school, is something that appears to be unrealistic to most American students. Your student will not likely be reading about a school that looks like theirs. Admittedly, it feels in some ways that Harry Potter’s Hogwarts was turned into a middle school in America. This makes for good reading but at the same time might make it too far removed from the experience of many. That said its a well-crafted story. The story normalizes a young person who has very real and very visible physical deformities into someone who is very human and not fragile. Auggie is an actual 5th grader who is not just his deformity. He is trying to make friends. He is trying to navigate a bully. He is trying to deal with a world where the adults are not stepping in when conflicts arise. One of the tremendous things he deals with is the death of a beloved pet. Finally, he deals with being actually assaulted by children that are physically larger and more mature than him.
The supporting characters in this text are incredibly well-rounded. Though Auggie and his condition are central to the story, this is a story about being an adolescent in general. Parents should think of this as a book that can help them understand what the day to day of their student’s life looks like. This book can be an in-road to good solid conversations with your children. Reading this book with them can be an excellent way to get them to speak about how there life is going and where it may be challenging or stuck. Any book that can do this is a valuable text. This book also has the unusual characteristic of being an interesting read for children and an interesting read for adult as well. The key to this is that the book is real, and the book is current. This is not a nostalgic text. Though Beecher Prep is a “good school” it is not one that is without its warts. Every reader can see their own experience in this school in some way. Every reader can find at least one character to relate to in someway. This is a very relevant text.