Author: R.J. Palacio
Genre: Contemporary, Middle Grade
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (US) / Bodley Head (UK)
Publication date: February 14 2012 / March 1 2012
Hardcover: 320 pages
I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?
R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from the UK publisher
I’ve been thinking about Wonder by R.J. Palacio a lot and about my reaction to it since I finished reading it. There are many things I loved about the book and I do recommend it to everybody, including its intended audience (Middle Grade) although I do so with reservations and the hope that the book can – should – engender thoughtful discussions.
Wonder tells the story of August (Auggie) Pullman, a boy who was born with a facial deformity caused by an extremely rare genetic disorder. He’s been homeschooled all his life but now – after more than 20 corrective surgeries – his parents feel he needs to go to school. The book follows Auggie throughout fifth grade depicting his worries and the hurdles along the way. The book is roughly divided in 8 parts and is narrated by 8 different people – all of them part of Auggie’s life to one extent or another. The most impacting of those is of course Auggie’s own perspective: he sees himself as an ordinary kid with an extraordinary face. His narrative is poignant as he describes what it feels like in those seconds whenever someone looks at him then averts their eyes. What it feels like to know that people avoid being next to him and avoid touching him. This is a kid who knows about cruelty and unkindness but who also manages to be funny, endearing and super brave. He is surrounded by people who do love him – his family, his friends. The book progresses to show how Auggie deals with his life at school but also how everybody else around him is affected by it.
Wonder was published yesterday (Feb 14) and is already gaining acclaim. It got starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus, a rave from The Independent and from Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing. I agree with the majority of these reviews. This is a beautiful, thoughtful book that celebrates kindness and thoughtfulness. I loved the main character, Auggie and I loved how his story progressed and I even loved its overly sentimental ending. Although I would definitely argue that some of the different voices don’t sound “different” at all and that a few of those viewpoints are completely superfluous and add nothing to the narrative (another thing that adds absolutely nothing to the narrative except cheap tears? The death of Auggie’s beloved dog). Despite those criticisms, this is a book worth of praise.
However, and please believe me when I say that I do feel bad for even thinking about criticising a book like Wonder, I do feel this book has a simplistic approach to a very complex subject. I feel bad because this is a book so full of good intentions, a book that celebrates diverse stories, that goes against bullying and yes, all of this is truly wonderful and Auggie’s is a story that deserves to be read and celebrated but to me, the book crossed a very fine line when it tried to propose certain precepts as universal truths.
There are three quotes from the book – coming from 3 different characters, at different points in the novel – which I would like to examine closely. These are the quotes that rubbed me the wrong way when reading the book and what kept me thinking about it. Because they are quotes from THREE different characters, I do feel they pervade the narrative more as “postulations” and “principles” rather than simply viewpoints. I disagree with them vehemently but would like to make plain that this is my personal opinion – and I am about to get really political and philosophical here.
Take this quote for example (this is from one of viewpoint characters, Auggie’s sister’s boyfriend who is thinking about Auggie’s condition).
“…no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. like with parents who adore you blindly. and a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you… maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds.”
Even though I appreciate the sentiment, I think this is a very naïve and even dangerous thought. What is this thought really saying? What is it saying about children that are dying of hunger in Africa right now? For a more close-to-home approach: what is it saying about kids just like Auggie who are poor and whose parents cannot afford health insurance in America right now? How do they take care of their kids?
The universe is absolutely NOT taking care of all its birds. WE are or at least, we should be. I think this thought is dangerous because it excludes personal and social responsibility from the equation. Within the context of this novel, I think it is awesome that Auggie has such a loving family but not everybody does and I am extremely sorry to say that I really don’t believe that the universe evens it all out.
Another quote from the novel (from a different character) which I think is connected to this same idea. This quote is part of a speech toward the end of the novel in which this character – the school’s principal – is talking about kindness and about what would happen if everybody were a (bold is mine):
“[…] little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognise in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
He paused and shrugged.
“Or whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in.”
Which to me is just another attempt at evoking this idea that there is something in the “universe” that is intrinsically “good”. Not to mention how it not only infers that “goodness” can only come from a place of religion or spiritualism but it also manages to be extremely offensive to anybody who doesn’t subscribe to this idea of “God” while at it.
Both these quotes and ideas connect with one of the main themes of the novel – if not THE main theme, which is: the importance of kindness – and several different characters at different points voice that. I don’t think anyone could ever argue against the idea that kindness is important and even elemental to life. However this precept (which is lauded and applauded in the novel) is extremely problematic to me:
“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”
I think “being right” is an idea that cannot be pinned down easily. I believe that “doing right by” is important. I don’t believe it should be one OR the other. I don’t think it applies to every circumstance. I do believe that sometimes being kind is the absolutely wrong thing to do. Sometimes it is more important to be right, it is important to say the truth and to speak out. Sometimes being right and speaking out IS the kindest thing to be done.
Ultimately, I feel that Wonder is a great novel which speaks on behalf of a wonderful kid but I think it does so from a white, middle class, Christian perspective that can afford to be kind over being right and to the exclusion of other perspectives. THAT’s what has rubbed me the wrong way.
As you can see, as I was writing my thoughts, I found myself living the very conundrum I am talking about. I could have been kind and just talked about what I loved about the book. But in the end I think I do the book, Auggie and its potential readers more justice by addressing some of the things that left me conflicted about it. And you know, I don’t think there is anything unkind about it.
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