Children can be cruel, especially middle school age kids. It’s the reason that most teachers choose to work at elementary or high school, they can’t deal with the angst involved with the hormonal surges of pre-teenagers. It takes a special breed to actually enjoy that age group, children who once they find a weakness in their peers have no qualms in exploiting that fact, whether real or imaginary. “Your nose is too big”, “Your hair is greasy”, “You’re too fat”, “You’re too thin”, “You smell”, You’re stupid”, “You’re smart” . . . Now imagine that you really do have a physical “abnormality” which is front and center and impossible to ignore? Wonder by R. J. Palacio explores the reaction of a private school community to August Pullman, a ten year old boy with a rare congenital defect which has distorted his facial features.
August was home schooled, both due to the recovery periods from his twenty seven surgeries and also to shield him from the reactions of his peers. However, by the time he was ready to start fifth grade, his mother wondered if it wasn’t time to consider a school setting, Beecher Prep, a private school in New York City with a “limited” population. August is leery, but he agrees to check it out. Three of his incoming classmates are chosen to show him around prior to the start of the school year. While Jack and Charlotte seem nice, Julian is outright nasty. After much discussion, August decides to give it a go. The whole experience is not an easy one, neither for August, his parents, or his older sister Olivia Pullman. The adjustment involves not just August, but his classmates, as everyone learns to deal with one another – a process fraught with tension, not just from the kids but also from some of the parents. It’s a time of growth for all, and August develops from a spoiled child into a self assured young man over the course of the year despite or perhaps because of the challenges thrown his way.
What I really liked about this well written, age appropriate children’s book (which should also be read by adults) is the narrative approach Palacio uses to tell August’s story. While it was Auggie’s tale to tell, his life also affected others so we get to hear the point of view of various events from his sister Via, her “best” girlfriend Miranda and boyfriend Justin, a couple of August’s friends – Jackalope and Summer, and even his nemesis – Julian Albany. While we mainly hear August’s voice, it was also important to get the perspective of the people who surrounded him.
Even if you go into this book feeling aloof, eventually the uplifting message grabs you and pulls at your heartstrings. While some might question the happy ending, remember that there was a lot of cruelty along the way. I can only imagine what a tear jerker the movie version evokes. I also appreciate how the educators were cast in a positive, supportive light – they even impart some knowledge on the reader. The additional chapter from Justin’s point of view is a good counterbalance with a surprise revelation which creates a positive outcome for all concerned. Although a little lengthy, it’s still a perfect book for fifth grade ELA! Five stars.
This review also appears on Goodreads.