I had to wait a few days before writing this review, yet I still don’t really know how to articulate what this book means to me or how powerfully it affected me. The protagonist of R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder” is August Pullman, a fifth-grade boy with an unspecified severe craniofacial deformity. The novel follows Auggie as he leaves behind the fairly protective bubble he has grown up in and navigates school for the very first time. “Wonder” is one of those children’s books that can be appreciated by both adults and children alike. In that sense it’s comparable to John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” or Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. While children will read the book on one level, fall in love with the protagonist and hopefully learn a moral lesson about kindness, adults will read the book on another level, fall in love with the protagonist, question their own behaviour as a child and investigate the way humans treat each other through the prism of Auggie’s specific experience.
“It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. Only, I know that I’m that person to other people, maybe to every single person in that whole auditorium. To me, though, I’m just me. An ordinary kid.”
No book has ever had such a powerful emotional impact on me: it made me so angry, made me cry and made me want to go back and relive every childhood situation where I made a small offhand comment or threw someone a look that might have hurt their feelings. That’s not to say “Wonder” is a pity party for its protagonist. It wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if that was the case. Auggie is witty, intelligent, charming and sweet. He loves “Star Wars” and hanging out with friends and is gifted at Mathematics and Science and is basically just like any other kid – save the way other people look at him. Auggie loves Halloween because it’s the one day of the year he can wear a mask and experience being treated with normality. When Auggie wears a mask someone in the school highway gives him a high five; Auggie wonders without self-pity whether they would have done so had they known who was behind the mask. He loves his dog and the way she licks him all over his face, unable to see the difference between Auggie’s face and the face of any other human being. Auggie is hyperware of his facial deformity and how others react to it; he notices the split second of surprise on people’s faces before they break into a smile; he notices that other children avoid touching him; it is implied that he realizes that most of his classmates have lied to get out of attending his birthday party. The fact that he faces this treatment with such maturity and calm acceptance makes it even more upsetting – if that’s possible.
Some scenes will break your heart. I won’t spoil them. I was so invested in Auggie’s life by the conclusion of the novel that I didn’t want it to end, yet was extraordinarily happy that it ended at the point it did: on a rare note of triumph for the protagonist and with the long overdue attainment of acceptance from his peers. Palacio also explores the story from the viewpoints of Auggie’s friends and sister, deepening the narrative, explaining their responses to the protagonist, and illustrating how Auggie’s condition has shaped and changed each of them. Yet Palacio has stated that she chose not to tell any of the story from Auggie’s parents’ perspective. She made this choice because she thought the alternative would be too depressing. Adult readers, and Auggie’s parents, know how many struggles and challenges Auggie still has ahead of him, this consciousness slightly tainting even the hugely life-affirming ending point of the novel.
“Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.”
I haven’t done enough justice to this book. It’s a coming-of-age tale with a protagonist whose bravery might help inspire others. It’s a treatise on the importance of compassion. It’s a reminder that the smallest action might make the biggest difference to someone else. It’s a story that will uplift you and encourage you to be the best version of yourself.
“It’s what you’ve done with your time, how you’ve chosen to spend your days, and whom you’ve touched this year. That, to me, is the greatest measure of success.”