by R.J. Palacio, 2012
Wonder has gained a fair bit of attention, and for good reason. In a time where even the slightest bit of difference can render one exiled from social groups, from political discussions, and even from going to the bathroom, it’s heartwarming to read a story about a kid who embraces his differences and rises above those who would keep him down. Everyone loves an underdog story and this is a prime example.
Wonder is the story of fifth-grader Auggie Pullman. Born with genetic abnormalities that resulted in facial deformities, Auggie has been sheltered by his parents for most of his life. This year promises to be different, as Auggie enters school for the first time. As might be expected, not everything goes as well as his parents have hoped. Although a small group of peers has been chosen to help Auggie acclimate to school life, not everyone’s intentions are pure and Auggie is the target of some intense bullying that causes him to question whether school is something he truly wants. Fortunately, some students do magnificently have Auggie’s back and they show him what having real friends is like.
I was afraid that this would be a simple retelling of the “it’s not how you look, it’s what’s inside you that counts” moral. Thankfully, Palacio’s writing gives the story far more depth. I was particularly pleased to see that we were privy to viewpoints aside from Auggie’s and that not everyone served as Auggie’s cheerleader. Most notably was the chapter told from his sister Via’s point of view. With Auggie and his needs forming the center of the family, Via is known mostly to others as the deformed boy’s sister. Entering high school and enduring changes within her own social circle only complicates Via’s life and, despite her love for her brother, Via is sullen and withdrawn. However, instead of vilifying Via, Palacio is sympathetic to her needs and shows how hard these challenges can be for everyone involved.
Wonder is billed as a middle-grade novel, but there’s much to be taken from it as an adult. As grown-ups we typically know that it’s wrong to poke fun of someone who is visibly different from us, yet we continue to bully and ostracize with the best of them. For everyone who is different in some way – whether that is through the clothes one’s culture or religion prescribes or through the food one eats due to health restrictions or to the gender with which one identifies – Wonder serves as a hopeful tale of redemption. Likewise, it serves as a reminder to us that we are not all so different, and that kindness goes a long way.