WONDER (Random House)
by R.J. Palacio
As with most good stories, WONDER, R.J. Palacio’s debut novel for middle grade readers, begins on a day when something different happens. August’s mother asks him to try going to school.
A genetic anomaly, August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that required endless surgeries and kept him out of mainstream education. Auggie has experienced the cruelty of others in his Northern New Jersey neighborhood first hand (on the playground, at the ice cream store). Never the less, he agrees to attend the private Beecher Prep middle school.
The wondrous story of Auggie’s 5th grade year first includes all the friendship angst, cafeteria jockeying, educator’s wisdom, school projects, and field trips you’d expect in an odd-man-out, middle-school novel with two interesting exceptions.
First, Auggie’s physical appearance is pretty startling. Of course, the reader can’t see Auggie but that doesn’t matter. As Auggie states at the onset of the novel, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Despite this, the reader falls in love with and roots for Auggie from the start. R.J. Palacio writes Auggie as smart, funny, unendingly patient with his new friends, incredibly forgiving of his family. He is more mature than all around him because he has learned from the mistakes of others and is a product of his loving and supportive family. Perhaps Auggie is too-good-to-be-true and he’s not the only one.
Dad makes everyone laugh, Mom takes care of everyone, older sister Via feels jealous of all the attention Auggie has gotten but then knows enough to feel guilty about it. Via’s new boyfriend gets the lead in the school play. Even Via’s out-of-favor best friend gives up something very important to her just to be generous. In other words, with the characters in WONDER, even their flaws are perfect.
Second, R. J. Palacio tells the story in alternating first person. Not only Auggie, but also his sister Vi, his new friends Summer, and Jack, and his sister’s best friend each have a hand in telling the story. Instead of each narrator moving the story forward, they each retell a preceding portion of the story and then move on. The benefit of this structure is that the reader sees Auggie from the perspective of those around him. However, this two steps forward, one step back pacing can be frustrating, especially when the new point of view doesn’t add enough new information to the replayed scenes.
R.J. Palacio writes a happily refreshing family in the Pullmans. Loving and kind, playful and supportive, this family is one with which many readers will identify. Middle grade and Young Adult readers are all too used to reading about families with dead-mothers, substance-addicted or absent fathers, and snarky siblings. The Pullmans are a welcomed change.
In all, WONDER is a positive addition to the literature about the disability experience. F.J. Palacio’s story of acceptance, friendship, and kindness will carry the reader through laughter and tears and open their eyes to a life where something different happens.