Book Review: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

I meant to read this book long ago. I bought a copy, then misplaced it. During some spring cleaning, it emerged, and I read it over the course of three days or so. It’s a story of bullying and perseverance, and it reinforces a thought I’ve been having over the past several weeks: the world would be a better place if everyone simply read more fiction.

The book follows a boy named Auggie (August), who has a rare combination of genetic conditions, leaving him with a facial abnormality. The back of the book says it all: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Out of curiosity, I looked up the movie trailer, and it seems the movie didn’t go far enough in showing the extent of the abnormality—not that it matters.

What’s at the heart of the book is bullying. The reason doesn’t really matter—should never really matter. Auggie is trying to make it through his first year at a real school. He’s been homeschooled up to this point because of all the surgeries he has needed to bring him to the place he is now—healthy and able to attend school on a regular basis. As is to be expected, the kids at school are not used to seeing him, and they react in hurtful ways, especially one boy (Julian).

Several narrative voices tell the story: Auggie, of course, his sister, friends… the mix of perspectives helps us understand the whole picture and empathize with basically everyone in the story. The edition I picked up included a bonus chapter, which is told from the perspective of the bully, and it really helps to shed light on the lessons of the book—that we should always offer more kindness than is needed, and that everyone is fighting a battle.

While the book, like all middle grade/young adult works, mostly leaves the world to kids to deal with, it does shed light on the role grown-ups have (can have/should have) on a child’s life and in enabling, encouraging, or countering bullying. It also emphasizes the lesson that anger never leads anywhere productive, and kindness never harms.

At times, the book tugs at the reader’s heart. For example, Auggie tells us that he has grown accustomed to people’s reaction to him. We learn also about “the Plague,” a game played at school in which anyone who accidentally touches him must wash their hands or else they “die.” It helps to illustrate how cruel kids can be. The bonus chapter at the end makes a connection to World War II, implying that while bullying seems like no big deal on the playground, it can lead to dire situations in the real world.

My daughter, who is only 4, asks me about the books I read. I told her about this one and tried to explain the concept of bullying to her. We talked about how she would feel if she were in Auggie’s place, and what she should do if she were somewhere and saw someone else being bullied/ignored. I am saving the book for her for when she’s a few years older. I return to my thoughts of the past weeks, that the more we read, the more we can empathize. And this book certainly helps everyone do that.

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