R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is one of those books I hesitate to write about because all the positive press it has received. (There are no fewer than six laudatory quotations by as many well-known authors on the back of my copy of the book.) I was set up to expect something absolutely, positively out-of-the-ballpark fantastic. And while I really, really like this novel, I feel like I was a little misled by all the good things I read about it before I read it myself. (This post at Heavy Medal, the SLJ Mock Newbery blog more closely matches my feelings about it than, say, the excitement of the anti-bullying campaign spurred by the book.)
Wonder is the story of Auggie Pullman, a boy born with a extreme facial anomalies which make him very noticeably different than “normal” children. After being homeschooled up through fourth grade, Auggie enters a traditional, private school in fifth grade and experiences what one might expect in a middle grade novel: a lion’s share of bullying and poor treatment, but also unexpected kindnesses from a few classmates. He even makes a couple of real, true friends. Auggie’s life until this point had been fairly sheltered and peaceful: he has a few friends who accept him; his nearly- perfect parents mostly know when to push him and when to pull back; his older sister loves and protects him ferociously; and he has a little dog who simply loves his heart and doesn’t care about his face. His foray into the halls of middle school changes things–his family, his friends, his relationships with his sister, but even more than that, it changes the school.
This is a story that is told from various perspectives: Auggie’s, his sister’s, his friends at school, even his sister’s boyfriend. Palacio does an excellent job of really getting inside Auggie’s head and developing his voice; he succeeds at being both the brave boy at school and the wounded boy after school at home where he can let down his guard. Auggie’s voice is both likeable and full of pathos:
If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way. (3)
Auggie’s voice is one of the best parts of the story. Multiple perspectives in a novel used to bother me a lot, but I’ve read quite a few that use this device lately, so I must be getting used to it. I can’t say that it’s particularly well-done in Wonder, but it isn’t bad, either. It’s just okay–none of the voices really distinguishes itself from the others, really, so they all just sort of get a veneer of general likeability thanks to Auggie’s likeability.
I think I came to this novel expecting it to be a Newbery-contender, and after reading it I just don’t think it is. I read it wearing my Newbery-colored glasses and came away just a little bit let down. It’s a good story–maybe even a great one–except that I’m afraid I’m a rather cynical adult who has a hard time believing what Auggie’s mom believes:
“There are always going to be jerks in the world, Auggie. . .But I really believe, and Daddy really believes, that there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other.” (279)
The ending of the story reminds me of an After School Special–everyone’s happy, everything ends up mostly right, and so on. We cried a little along the way, but now we can stand up and cheer and hug our friends. The story isn’t very complex, even if the issues are. I do think this book is a contender for a Cybils award in the middle grade fiction category since the focus of the Cybils is on books with “combined literary merit with kid appeal,” and the kid appeal is definitely there. Is it a Newbery contender, though? I don’t think so. (Knopf, 2012)
(All of these reviews are extremely positive, by the way.)