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.
Buy the Book:
Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, google, nook, kobo and sony
Nancy W.February 15, 2012 at 8:34 am
This is a wonderful, thoughtful, important post, Ana. Thank you for it.
AnaFebruary 15, 2012 at 8:42 am
Thank you, Nancy.
JodieFebruary 15, 2012 at 9:06 am
Based on your analysis I think I’d react the same way to those bits of the book. They sound nice, but if you go a bit beyond and expand the focus a bit there are problems.
April Books & WineFebruary 15, 2012 at 9:07 am
I said this on twitter, but it bears repeating in an official comment. I HATE NEEDLESS DOG DEATHS. Like, come on. We can wring out some tears in a better way. Dear authors, PUT AN END TO THAT MADNESS PLEASE!!
AnaFebruary 15, 2012 at 9:10 am
@ Jodie – the “sound nice” bit is exactly what made me wary of writing this post. Because they are nice thoughts right but on the surface only…
@ April – yes, cheap tricks. I agree 🙁
NoemyFebruary 15, 2012 at 9:11 am
I haven’t read a lot of reviews about this book yet but what you just said : “Sometimes being right and speaking out IS the kindest thing to be done” feels SO RIGHT 🙂 I really like your review as usual, it makes me want to buy a copy of “Wonder” to see for myself what I would think about it. Thank you !
AnaFebruary 15, 2012 at 9:15 am
@ Noemy – Thanks, and I hope you enjoy the book if you decide to pick it up.
KarenFebruary 15, 2012 at 9:17 am
Yikes. I am definitely a fan of teaching kindness and thoughtfulness, but this does come off as somewhat condescending and privileged. I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I think I’ll try and read the book before I go on too long.
JLFebruary 15, 2012 at 10:10 am
Thank you, Ana, for articulating your thoughts on this. I don’t think criticism of wonderful books is a bad thing. Good books should inspire this kind of discussion. Isn’t that what literature is all about?
As a kid growing up (in a non-religious household), whenever I tried to rationalize things as happening for a reason, my mom would point out exactly what you have – do all those underprivileged people caught in webs of disaster get what they deserve, then? It’s an extremely neoliberal take on things, individualizing benefits and responsibilities while ignoring the structural factors you point out that make privileges possible.
Personally, I don’t get why the message is ‘it happens for a reason’ versus be ‘grateful for what you can’ because you only get one life and it’s just easier to get through it with an optimistic attitude than a pessimistic one.
Amanda WFebruary 15, 2012 at 11:03 am
Thank you for such a thoughtful post. Although I haven’t read the book yet, based on your quotes and comments, it seems to me the viewpoint expressed is offensive/concerning to both those with a non-Christian worldview and those with a Christian worldview. It’s a watered-down-vague-unspecific kind of “spiritual” that does a disservice to those Christians who are truly kind, compassionate and caring beyond platitudes.
jen mFebruary 15, 2012 at 11:45 am
this is a really great post. thanks ana! i’ve always found the “everything happens for a reason” idea to be a frustrating message which ignores the experiences of huge numbers of people. boiling down the complexity of life to broad feel-good generalizations is easy to do, but doesn’t really have any connection with much of the world.
as for the book being sort of offensive to non-Christians, or even specifically to (*gasp*) atheists — i would say this is something i see everywhere. i read about a survey recently that said that atheists were the most disliked and distrusted demographic in the country (the US, that is). anyways, i’m stopping myself before i start on a rant.
i’m glad you wrote an honest post about your feelings, instead of keeping them in because of a desire to be nice. that is part of why this is the best book blog out there! 🙂
YetiFebruary 15, 2012 at 12:08 pm
Great review. I dislike needless dog deaths (or any other deaths that aren’t truly necessary to the story) I read a book by Patrick Ness in which the dog was THE best character and lo and behold it was killed off..I was all WTF?! Ended up disliking the book and refused to read the remaining books in the series, grrr!
DeirdreFebruary 15, 2012 at 12:09 pm
Speaking as a Christian, I cringed a bit when I read those quotes. Without going too much into my religious beliefs, I have to say that even though I believe God ultimately takes care of us all, He/She still charges us with doing everything possible to help our fellow human beings. I remember reading recently somewhere that the line in the prayer “thy kingdom come thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” means that Christians have a DUTY and OBLIGATION to make Earth as much a fair and just place as Heaven is said to be. Hearing someone say, in effect, “well, let God sort it out” is such a pat unthinkingly privledged response that it makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it. I can definately see why it made you uncomfortable. Sad, because it otherwise sounds like a decent, interesting book. Thanks for posting your thoughts.
On a slightly different note, this book reminds me a bit of one I read years ago–Lizard by Dennis Covington, about a boy with a disfigured face (though IIRC it wasn’t as disfigured as the boy’s in this story). I remembered liking Lizard quite a bit, but it’s been a while since I read it (gosh, like over ten years!) so I don’t know if I reread it now if I’d have the same opinion. This is an older book, so it’s out of print, but I think it can be bought used, or probably found in some libraries, so it may be worth checking out.
AmyFebruary 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm
Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. I agree with you that some of these ideas are troubling in their simplistic representation. While I like the idea of kindness over rightness, this can lead to harmful situations, ie a child who is being abused but wants to be kind so their abuser doesn’t get in trouble.
Also, I am SO TIRED of the dead dog trope. I wrote an entire rant about that on my blog.
Wonder RJ Palacio Book ReviewFebruary 29, 2012 at 10:01 pm
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AnonymousJuly 14, 2012 at 5:28 am
Read the book and then gauge your own perspective about it. I didn’t find it simplistic at all when considering who the intended audience is. I can see how the the comments you have mentioned could be interpreted in the wrong way but they are written from the perspective of different characters and I agree with a comment made above, that it encourages thoughtful discussion. Again the perspective it is written from is a discussion point. If anything, what I would have liked to have seen in the book was a section written from the perspective of one of the children who excluded him.
Gayle BurnsApril 6, 2013 at 11:32 am
I too got angry that the dog dies for no apparent reason to the story.My friends who read the book all talked about how they cried when Daisy dies, and all I can think about is, why aren’t we crying for Via and what her life has been like? I also didn’t know why it was placed in the story after the sister is honest about her feelings of the difficulties of being a sibling in this situation–all of a sudden it was about the dog instead of about Via and I wanted it to be about her–poor Via had to take the back seat to the dog.
AnonymousOctober 2, 2013 at 9:47 pm
AnounnymousMay 30, 2014 at 9:20 pm
Good job writing this but i think that daisy dies becuz it helps prove to auggie that the world really doesn’t evolve around him because he was wondering about his mom coming up so i think that it was important, however i do agree that she shouldn’t have died, maybe just have gotton sick…
BrittanyAugust 4, 2014 at 8:59 pm
Interesting post. I am only halfway through the book, so I’m not sure if these issues are addressed… but am I the only one concerned with how the author presents ‘special needs’ in this text? First, the use of the word ‘retarded’ by Auggie, and then when the principal writes a defensive letter to a parent saying that August is not special needs nor is he developmentally delayed… insinuating that if he were, her reaction would be fair? To me this seems like it is empowering people with one sort of disability by putting down another… it felt as if it were implying that we shouldn’t judge August by how he looks, because his brain works just the same as ours… but if it didn’t, well then we could judge him. Anyway, this is very troubling to me because I had planned on reading this book to my classroom of middle schoolers with special needs, however now I’m not so sure…
thoughts? I can’t seem to find anyone else in the internet world with these same complaints!
SusanFebruary 12, 2016 at 10:32 am
Speaking from a Christian viewpoint, I did not find this book or these quotes offensive at all. They are certainly realistic quotes that a real person could have/would have said, and they support the views of those such as me in our society. While it is true that Auggie’s principal didn’t mention those who do not follow a religion, this happens in everyday examples in real life. For example, “under God” is part of the United States Pledge of Allegiance. I believe that this is important, as well a part of history, and no one should have to change that. All that to say, I don’t think that Christian references are inappropriate at all, and I believe that they strengthen the viewpoints and I agree with these quotes myself. It bothered me that I saw no other commenters who held this view.
For the intended reading group, I didn’t find it at all simplistic. A bit messy, perhaps, with viewpoints jumping all over the place, but not simplistic. I found Wonder to be a touching story and it made me want to read the later “side stories” that were written (Shingaling, Pluto, and The Julian Chapter). Of those three, I have only read The Julian Chapter, but Wonder far surpassed it in my opinion.
I do happen to agree some with your opinion on being right or being kind. I think that for the most part, it is important to be kind. When it comes to, say, an argument, it is more important to be kind instead of forcing your point upon others, but sometimes, the right thing to do might involve being honest but not completely kind. For example, when I observed two students cheating in class, I reported this to my advisor. I felt bad about reporting them, because it wasn’t “kind” to report them, but it seemed the right thing to do to let my teacher know about it. Funny that the “right thing” and the “kind thing” to do aren’t always synonymous…
AbbyFebruary 16, 2016 at 1:36 pm
This was such a good artical! thank you for posting it. ??????????????