Let’s start out by admitting that I did not want to read this book. I had it on my nighttable when it first came out and returned it without reading it. It was guaranteed to be a tearjerker, and I hate being manipulated emotionally. Later, when it started getting all sorts of buzz, I put it back on hold and had to wait for a month to get a copy! And just to let you know beforehand how I liked it, it was well worth the wait.
August is a young man who was born with facial deformities that are so severe that, after dozens of surgeries in his short life, children still scream when they see him. Because of the amount of time that he’s spent in the hospital or recovering from surgery, his mother has homeschooled him his whole life—until now. Auggie’s parents have decided that he will start middle school this year, along with his age-mates. Now for some reason, the author has placed fifth grade in middle school, and so this is a story about Auggie’s fifth grade year.
The principal, Mr. Tushman, is a good man who thought it would be a compassionate idea to ask several of his kindest students to show Auggie around and perhaps befriend him. You can imagine how that went all the way around. One of the students, Julian, is the type who is exemplary in front of adults, but is a bit of a bully with other kids, and of course his parents think the sun rises and sets on him. Julian is a popular boy, so other kids watch his reactions and copy him, and before long everyone avoids Auggie rather than risk becoming a social pariah. Some other students are nice to him out of pity, and that gets back to August, too. All the while, Auggie is an excellent student, has many interests, and is wise beyond his years because of all that he’s had to endure in his eleven years.
The story is divided into sections, and each section is told in a different voice, so that you can look at the same situation from different perspectives. The first section is by August, and although I immediately liked him, it was a relief to get another viewpoint, since looking through Auggie’s eyes can begin to pile on the guilt. Palacio was very wise to give us an opportunity to say to the other characters, “Well, yes. That’s only natural. I can’t blame you.”
Palacio gets bonus points for coming through on one of my big criteria for good children’s books: Auggie has terrific parents. They don’t always agree, but they love him very much. Furthermore, they love each other and their daughter. Via is the world’s coolest older sister, although she goes through some understandable troubles as she begins high school. It doesn’t take her long to realize that no one in her new school knows her as That Girl with the Deformed Brother, a fact of her life that has defined her in the past. We get to hear from her in one section, and the reader can’t help but think that she is a very honorable young woman. Palacio could have written a book in which everyone but August was evil, but she didn’t. The book honestly shows the struggle that normal people have when confronting someone so very different from themselves, but most people try to be as compassionate as they can be—even in middle school. Of course, there are always a few people who choose to live with hatred instead.
In the end, Wonder was not a sob-fest, as I expected, mainly because Auggie was not filled with self-pity. He was a genuinely nice, fun, and intelligent kid, and rather than running away, the reader wants to know more and more about him. This book was all about character development, both in the people in the book, and, I’m sure, in the reader. The problems in the beginning of the book seem excruciating at the time, but in the final crisis, we find that people who have disappointed us in the past can react in ways that we’ve never imagined, and sometimes that can fill us with hope.
I highly recommend Wonder to anyone ten or older, and I’d be very surprised if the Newbery Committee didn’t stick a gold or silver medal on this one.