(D) Ages 10-12, (E) Ages 12-15, Book Reviews, Middle Grades, Realistic Fiction, Teen/Adult
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Wonder, by R. J. Palacio.  Knopf, 2012, 320 pages.  Ages 8-up

August (Augie) Pullman obviously doesn’t remember the day he was born, but in the first few chapters he tells us his mother’s version.  The story as she tells it (with sound effects) always cracks up Augie and his sister because of his mother’s depiction of the nurse, a tough, drill-sergeant type who can’t do anything without farting.  But when Augie is delivered, everything gets very quiet.  His father and the other nurse take the baby and dash from the room, the officiating doctor actually faints, the farting nurse yells at him to wake up.  But she’s the one who proves to be the most help in the next few hours, especially by leaning close to Augie’s mother and whispering, “He who is born of God has overcome the world.”  That, of course, is I John 5:4, though the quote is not identified.

Several years ago, my mother sponsored a Polish couple to come to America for a series of surgeries on their only child.  Their baby looked like Augie: her face was more like a fish than a human, with bulging eyes located about one inch lower than where they should be; flat cheeks, a fat, fleshy nose, a sharply convex mouth.  The Polish couple made up their minds from the beginning that their daughter was perfect, and so do Augie’s parents.  But that leaves the problem of everybody else.  Augie, now age ten going on eleven, a fan of ice cream and Star Wars, feels perfectly normal inside.  But his appearance is physically jarring to strangers–children have been known to scream and run away at the sight of him.

That’s why, when his parents inform him that it’s time to transition from homeschool to Beecher Prep, not far from their home in upper Manhattan, Augie is determined not to go.   He does go, of course, and Wonder charts his fifth-grade experience with the trials and triumphs, friends and foes, pacts and pranks of any fifth-grader who happens to look like a monster.

It’s not until the narrative passes to his teenage sister Olivia that we get a description of what Augie actually looks like.  Before that we go through September and October from his point of view, reacting to others reacting to him.  First meetings are always the worst; after that he feels he’s making progress until an overheard conversation sends him back to Square One—maybe even back to homeschool.  But once over that obstacle, it’s onward and upward until Augie finds himself surrounded by friends at the fifth-grade graduation and awards assembly.

Readers will identify with Augie only up to a point.  They may identify more with his family and friends, which is why the narrative is passed around from Olivia to Augie’s first school friend, Summer, then to his best bud Jack and Olivia’s friend Miranda and Olivia’s new boyfriend Justin, etc.  Maybe a few too many, but that’s the effect Augie has—he pulls perceptions out of whack, makes people think differently.  This isn’t always easy: Olivia starts her part of the story with her personal guide to the cosmos: her brother is the sun and everybody else orbits around him.  Though she loves him, she can’t help feeling pushed aside by his never-ending physical and emotional needs.  Her friend Miranda sees Augie as a reason to distrust the fates, while Justin finds evidence that something is right: “The universe takes care of its little birds.”  Augie’s greatest asset is his family, a tight-knit bunch that weathers storms together and expresses love verbally and physically (and sometimes even to excess—enough with the I love you‘s!).  Outsiders who get to know him are drawn into the family orbit too, always to their benefit.

The worldview is triumphant humanism: looking to the divine spark in every person, choosing kindness over rightness.  “Such a simple thing, kindness.  Such a simple thing.  A nice word of encouragement given when needed.  An act of friendship.  A passing smile.  And when you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, someday, somewhere, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”   This is from the headmaster’s end-of-term speech, which lays it on a little thick, like other parts of Wonder.  One thing I wonder: will this novel be as popular with kids as it is with adults?  When kids know they are being taught Important Lessons, they tend to get a little resistant.

The main character might win them over, though: he’s bright and eager and finds the same things funny that they do (demonstrated by the fart and butt jokes in the first few chapters).  People like Augie, planted squarely in human society, force readers of all ages to take quick inventories of their deepest places: Are we afraid, or even angry? Why? How do we respond? Is pity sufficient? Why not? What does the existence of such people say about God?  What does it say about us?  The conclusion of the novel is almost a Hollywood ending, but it feels real, and the journey was definitely worth taking.

About that quote from I John, though: it should be pointed out that John is making a distinction between those born of God and those not born of God, which is a matter of faith in Jesus Christ.  Don’t let that one go by without clarification.  If you read the book to or with your kids, here are some questions to think about: 1) Which narrator do you most closely identify with?  2) What do you like about Augie’s attitude?  What parts of him do you think need some work?  3) What do you see as true and false in the headmaster’s closing speech?  4) Which of the “Precepts” at the end of the book do you like most?  5) Can you make up your own precept based on your thoughts about this book?

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5 out of 5
  • Literary value: 4 out of 5
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  1. I read Wonder earlier this year, and I think I liked it better than you did–or, at least, I think it’s more relatable to kids than you do. Hmm… Now we need some kids to read it and tell us what they think! I agree that humanism is the driving philosophical force behind the book, but I love it when a book challenges kids to grapple with how they treat others. We can only be truly kind when we understand God’s kindness to us in Christ; then we are free to be kind to anyone, regardless of their failures or successes or anything else. Books like Wonder help bring up those kinds of questions, and I didn’t find it preachy. I thought Palacio did a good job of making Auggie sort of the quintessential middle school student in many ways–except that most middle school students just imagine they are the subject of criticism and hushed conversations and the like whereas Auggie actually IS. Here’s my review of it from a few weeks ago: http://literaritea.blogspot.com/2012/02/wonder.html

  2. Betsy:
    I actually liked the book a lot, and I hope it gets a lot of honors because it deserves to be read. It’s just that we see things a little differently through our Christian lens, and while everyone is capable of kind acts, we have an additional motive for kindness that the world doesn’t have: Be merciful, for your heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). About the preachiness, you’re probably right. The story is engaging enough that most kids won’t mind it.

  3. I enjoyed our visit this weekend so much, Janie!

    I think it will be interesting to see what happens with Wonder come awards time–it’s coming out so early in the year, that I wonder if other books will end up “trumping” it. I thought Okay for Now was a very thought-provoking read last year, but it got nary a nod (save for an audio award) in the medal ceremonies in January; I liked it much better than Dead End, for instance. And it will be interesting to see if Wonder really does grab a kid’s attention. We try to put ourselves in their shoes when we review, but it’s hard to know what it’s like to be an 11-year-old in 2012. I thought the book was a touch long and that may drive plenty of kids away as well.

  4. Elizabeth says

    I am so glad I found this page – your review and the comments, because I needed to discuss this book with other believers.
    The author of Wonder visited our elementary school last week and spoke to the third – fifth graders. My oldest is a third grade boy, enjoys reading. His teacher had already started reading the book to his class.
    I had ordered the book and the author signed it to my three kids including the instruction “Always choose Kind”. I was immediately taken aback when I saw this. This sparked so many thoughts for me – what is the agenda of this book?, Kindness is a fruit so what is the root? is the message of this book – you can be good without God?
    I became even more concerned when I saw the list of Precepts in the back of the book.
    I am more than halfway through the book myself, enjoying the story, My son and I have been talking a lot about the messages in the book, and I am trying to be grateful for the opportunity to speak with him about applying a biblical worldview to our books, movies, entertainment.
    This is probably my first real experience of being concerned about the messages he is receiving from school and the classroom (our neighborhood public school). This year has been such a treat because his third grade teacher was his bible study leader at church camp last summer! I am considering requesting to chat with her about this book.
    I agree with the author that we always have a choice in how we treat people, but I believe that we can’t look within ourselves to Always make that right choice, we have to look outside ourselves and to Jesus. Had the inscription not been there, maybe I wouldn’t have started off on ‘the wrong foot’ with this book. thanks

  5. Ariel says

    I have heard so many good things from my students (I am a dance teacher) that I decided to give it a try. I have to say I am very disappointed. My first disappointment was when the English teacher blatantly told the children that God isn’t the most important thing….the most important thing is “who we are”. WOW. Then the whole the universe takes care of the birds? I viewed that as a blatant attack against biblical truths. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

    I just can’t get behind this book at all after those two things.

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