Today I finished reading R.J. Palacio's WONDER (Knopf, 2012). There was a lot to love about it; there were a few things I didn't love. I'll start with the good.
August Pullman is about to start fifth grade. He's also about to attend school for the first time in his life, having been home-schooled by his mother and snugly cocooned within his loving family until now. Born with such severe facial deformities that he was not expected to survive, Auggie has beaten those odds, and undergone numerous corrective surgeries, but, in his words: "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." Welcome to middle school.
For the first 80 pages, the reader is inside Auggie's head, finding out what it feels like to have kids in your class stare at you out of the corners of their eyes and cringe when they touch your hand by accident. Then the point of view shifts. The reader learns what it's like to be Olivia, Auggie's older sister, who learned by necessity a long time ago that no matter what she does, she will never come first in her family. Olivia understands and shoulders her premature responsibilities with such grace that it breaks your heart. We learn what it's like to be Justin, Olivia's first boyfriend, and Miranda, her former best friend. And we learn what it's like to be Summer and Jack, fifth-graders who have the courage to befriend Auggie despite the threat of social ostracism. We watch as all of them grow and change through the course of a school year, nudged along at times by helpful adults, but often having to find their own paths through the woods.
The need for kindness and empathy is a very important lesson, and this book teaches it in myriad ways, by expertly showing instead of telling. Toward the end, unfortunately, I must admit that I felt I was being walloped over the head with the Message, and that the principal's speeches were the author's least successful way of conveying it. I also found myself wishing that Auggie were just slightly less saintly - more 10-year-old boy, less Gandhi. Because his observations are conveyed so keenly, I think it would be easier for middle-grade readers to identify with being an ordinary kid who happened to have been born with a deformity - which, of course, could have been any one of them - but more difficult to identify with a nobility of spirit that almost never lapses into universal human failings. I think that if I were ten or eleven, I would want to read about Auggie because no matter how different he was on the outside, he was like me on the inside. But to be like 10-year-old me, he would have to be noticeably imperfect. In other words: a little less of a wonder.
Despite these quibbles, I found the book to be a wonderful read, and I believe that you will too. Every middle-schooler would benefit from meeting Auggie Pullman.