Monday, January 21, 2013

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder is simply amazing! It is R.J. Palacio's debut novel which tells the story of August Pullman, a 10 year old boy born with mandibulofacial dysostosis complicated by a hemifacial microsomia, which adds up to a series of severe facial deformities. August (also known as Auggie) has had numerous surgeries to correct the problems with his face. Because of his health problems, he has been home schooled through to grade 4. But now, going into 5th grade, it's time for him to confront the real world, the world he must learn to live in.

His parents decide to enroll him in Beecher Prep, a private middle school. Everyone in his family, his mom and dad and his older sister Olivia (known as Via), have mixed feelings, because they know this will be a difficult, but necessary step for August. August's story is told through a series of narrators including August, Olivia, Summer Dawon, Jack Wills, Justin who is Olivia's boyfriend, and Miranda who is Olivia's former lower school friend. From each we get a different perspective on what happens to Auggie when he begins school.

The novel begins with August narrating. His parents take him in before school to meet Mr. Tushman, the principal, and to take a tour of the school with some of the students. Those students include Charlotte Cody, Jack Will, and Julian Albans, who on first appearance seem to be quite nice. However, it is Julian who seems to view August as a "freak" pointedly questioning him on his face.

However, August finds that it is very difficult to settle into school life. The three students whom he met earlier don't really hang out with him. Instead, he finds a new friend in a girl, Summer Dawson, who sits are his table during lunch just because she wants to. Summer's friendship encourages Auggie and helps make school a bit bearable.

After a terrible situation which Auggie calls "The Halloween Incident", he almost drops out of school. But Via tells him he's not a quitter and Auggie continues on, intent upon forming friends and completing the year. Can Auggie help his classmates to look deeper, go past his facial abnormalities to discover the wonder of who he really is?

The use of six different narrators for the novel works splendidly. Palacio does a brilliant job of establishing a unique quality to each narrator's voice. Using the various narrators allows the reader to get inside the head of the main characters, offering a window on the situations in the novel from their personal perspective. For example, from Via we see how she feels sometimes neglected and is struggling to build an identity for herself outside of being Auggie's sister. She loves her brother, and empathizes with all the pain and isolation that he's had to deal with, but she also wants people to focus on her and not always on her brother.

Some readers might wonder about the inclusion of Olivia's boyfriend as a narrator, since really, he is not an essential character to the story. However, Justin's experience of Olivia's family serves to show the reader how important it has been for Auggie to be raised in such a loving family and how with the support of his family he has been able to overcome many obstacles. Justin has never experienced anything like this before, coming from a family where he is mostly an afterthought. His experience has a profound effect on him.

August Pullman is an endearing character, with his sense of humour and his obsession over Star Wars. His favourite holiday is Halloween because he can wear a mask like everyone else and no one gives him a second look. August, is a sweet boy, who struggles to get people to accept him for who he is, just an ordinary boy with an extraordinary face.

Another excellent character is Mr. Browne, the grade five English teacher. Mr. Browne is a kind teacher who seems to care about his students. Each month he writes a precept, which is a type of rule, on the blackboard. Students are also encouraged to come up with their own precepts too. Overall, Browne's precepts are great, but the first one he gives his students is a Dr. Dwayne Dyer quote, " When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind." is problematic. Is it not possible to be right and kind? Is it kind to tell someone that an action or belief is right, when in fact it is morally wrong? Is kindness the standard by which we must govern all our actions? The rest of Browne's precepts are listed at the back of the novel and are interesting. But his first precept, in my opinion, is questionable, since it is relativistic and really says nothing about kindness nor about being right.

Wonder leads us to think about how integral our face is in forming our identity - who we are. It is our face that provides people with a first impression. What if we met a person without first seeing their face? Would that change our first impressions? August wonders this at Halloween.

"I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks."

Wonder is simply wonderful! A great book for children's book clubs. A great book for young teens.

Book Details:
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
New York: Alfred A. Knopf             2012
315 pp.

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