It’s unusual to read on this blog about a book that is primarily intended for the elementary/middle school crowd, but this one is surely an exception. The title is Wonder by R. J. Palacio, and my granddaughter Lily strongly urged me to read it, as her teacher was reading it to her 4th grade class. Wonder, a New York Times bestseller, is a book that transcends age grouping—there are universal lessons that make it appropriate for all readers ten and above. The author has stated many times in interviews that she meant the book to be a “meditation on kindness.”
Wonder is the story of Augie (August), who lives in New York City with his parents and sister and who has been home-schooled his whole life up to this point, as he was born with multiple facial deformities and has undergone 28 surgeries, making school attendance impossible. As the time nears for him to begin 5th grade, his parents decide, for various reasons, that it is time for Augie to start “regular” school. Even though Augie has a physical deformity, he is quite intelligent, loves to read and draw, and has a real interest in science. As you might imagine, Augie has a somewhat difficult time acclimating to the school, as well as his peers to him. Anyone who has been the “new kid” in school knows how hard it is to fit in at the beginning, but, of course, Augie has the additional pressure of his obvious physical appearance to deal with. Augie says (speaking to the reader): “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
The book is written in alternating chapters of Augie’s thoughts and impressions and those of his parents, sister and his friends and classmates. And this is really the heart of the book—the author’s ability to capture the voices of these fifth graders with such skill—the language, feelings, and actions simply feel current and true. Olivia, Augie’s sister, says: “I’ve always understood that August is special and has special needs. My worst day, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has been through—this isn’t me being noble, it’s just the way it is.” She strives mightily to be supportive, and most often succeeds, but she is also a teenager, which makes her life even more difficult, as she wants desperately to just be herself and not “sister of…”
Summer has been Augie’s friend from the first day of school, when she saw that he was sitting alone in the cafeteria and chose to sit with him. “Imagine having that face? So I just went over and sat with him. Not a biggie…he’s just a kid. The weirdest-looking kid I’ve ever seen, yes. But just a kid.” Another friend, Jack, is initially leery of becoming friendly with Augie, but they become best of friends, sharing many common interests and being able to laugh about Augie’s condition together. When another student accidently bumps Augie, then sees his face and violently reacts, Jack asks Augie if he was always going to look that way, if he could get plastic surgery. Augie answers: “Hello! This is after plastic surgery!” Jack then answers: “Dude—you should sue your plastic surgeon!” After which they both collapse in laughter.
As the school year goes forward, Augie’s friends, Jack and Summer stick by him, and even though there are some nasty incidents of bullying, Augie struggles and yet manages to soldier through, growing in maturity and the understanding of the real world. At the graduation ceremony, Mr. Tushman, the principal quotes Henry Ward Beecher, saying: “Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength… He is the greatest who strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.”
“The key concept in Wonder is the impetus to ‘choose kind’–in other words, to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes even if it means letting go of the need to be right all the time,” says Gregory Cowles of the New York Times. And this leads to the explanation of why R.J. Palacio was moved to write this book. She and her two young sons were headed to an ice cream parlor in Brooklyn, when she spotted a young girl with a facial deformity, and she hurried her children away, fearful that her children would react badly. She has always felt she overreacted and continued to think about the incident. So Palacio’s atonement in the writing of Wonder has been a true gift, making this world a better place for all of us–a little kindness can change lives.
Has an act of kindness changed your life?