My Carnegie reading list continues with Wonder. With this book, R.J. Palacio swept me off my feet and took me on an incredible, moving journey. She combines believable, authentic voices of children and adolescents and a sensitive, sensible approach to her subject matter to create a book that is evocative without being too cheesy or trite. Wonder is about a young boy trying to integrate into a society not so accepting of physical difference—but, it’s also about a society trying to accept a young boy who is different.
The story begins with the main character, August, as the narrator. He introduces himself and his unique, congenital facial physiognomy that some might characterize as disfigured or deformed. August has spent most of his life in and out of the hospital for one surgery or another, and until this year he has been homeschooled. That’s all about to change. August is entering grade five (or “middle school” as the Americans call it), and his parents decide it’s time to enrol him into a small private school, Beecher Prep. Everyone braces themselves for the worst.
It’s interesting how we judge other people by physical qualities. We often assume that conformance to our narrow definitions of physical fitness also convey mental fitness, and that failure to conform to the former means the latter is also questionable. August might not look like a normal ten-year-old, but he is just as smart, if not smarter, than most ten-year-olds. Palacio is careful to assert this point—but not over-emphasize it—and it becomes an important character trait. Later in the book, a bigoted parent openly questions August’s fitness to attend Beecher Prep. She claims that because Beecher is not an “inclusion school” and doesn’t need to mix “normal” students with those who have “special needs”, August shouldn’t have been admitted. Palacio skilfully conveys, through this parent’s email to Beecher’s principal, a haughty tone dripping with false concern, making it obvious that this parent is using this abelist language as a mask for her own discomfort with August’s appearance.
I like this touch, because it gives younger readers a very good example of the duplicity that adults—and particularly parents—often practise “for the children”. It’s similar to the sadly all-too-frequent request to ban certain books “for the children”. Parents request things, citing the protection of children as a reason, when in reality they are attempting to warp the world to fit their own narrow, bigoted definitions of what makes for a civil society. It bothers me, as a teacher and a person, that such close-minded people exist and are raising part of the next generation.
But I digress. August enters Beecher Prep’s fifth grade and goes through the usual ups and downs, making friends of various fidelity and foes as well. His first big trial comes at Halloween, ordinarily August’s favourite time of the year. When he wears a different costume to school on the spur of the moment, no one recognizes him, and he unwittingly eavesdrops on several other children discussing him. He overhears one of his “friends” say something so vile that he flees and doesn’t want to return to school. Palacio has us hooked … and then she moves on to Part Two, narrated by Via, leaving us in the lurch as to whether August returns or not.
Via is starting at an elite high school. In middle school, despite August not attending, she was still known as the “kid with a deformed brother”. Hence, while Via’s love for August and desire to protect him knows no bounds, she is determined not to be “labelled” in such a way. As a younger child, Via had a lot of time to pay attention to August; as an adolescent, she is starting to become more concerned with her own needs. Her best friends have completely changed over the summer, and she drifts away from them and tries to rediscover or reinvent herself. Nevertheless, Via still manages to be a sounding board for August—she is the first one he confides in after the Halloween incident.
Next, August’s friend Summer picks up the narration, explaining why she sat at August’s lonely lunch table that first day. Summer is an important figure in August’s life because she is a genuine friend—she certainly feels sorry for him, but she is able to look past that pity and treat him like another, ordinary kid. They have genuine, fulfilling conversations that kids might have—and they get into some arguments and fights. August confides in Summer about Halloween, explaining why he isn’t friends with Jack anymore. He makes Summer swear—no crossed fingers or toes!—not to tell anyone, but she gives Jack a hint.
From there, Jack becomes the narrator. Palacio gives him an opportunity to explain his actions, so that we can see him as more a more sympathetic character. He genuinely has no inkling that August overheard his comments on Halloween, and it takes him a while to figure it out. This coincides with another kid making some incendiary comments about August, and he reacts emotionally, punching the kid in the face. The resulting disciplinary action touches off a chain of events that reverberates throughout the rest of the novel: Jack and August make up, over text message of course; the punched kid, Julian, starts a “boy war”, pitting his cohort against Jack; and Julian’s mother begins complaining to the principal about August’s presence.
The book does eventually return to August as the narrator, stopping along the way at a few others, including Via’s boyfriend Justin. I enjoyed the device of switching narrators far more than I suspected I would. Although much of the first part of each new narrator’s section is devoted to analysis and exposition, each new part does advance the plot a little. I like how Palacio exposes us to the diverse reactions and opinions about August and his condition. It creates a more holistic experience and reminds us that there is no such thing as a clear-cut way to think about issues like this. Jack’s weakness in the face of peer pressure is a great example, as is Amos, Miles, and Henry’s opposite heel face turn near the end of the book.
Palacio also keeps a lot of the book’s conflict tightly contained. That is, most of what August experiences is within the realm of what any boy might experience at school as a result of unpopularity. It’s simply that the reason for August’s status is something that he can’t possibly change. This allows readers, regardless of their ability or disability, to empathize with August’s plight—many of us have bullied or been bullied. Wonder is a reminder, particularly for those of us who happen to be able-bodied, that people with disabilities have to endure the same problems able-bodied people do as children, and then some.
I wish there had been more overt conflict among August/his parents, the principal, and the group of parents represented by Julian’s mother. Indeed, if any character could be singled out for Mary Sue levels of syrupy sweetness, it might be the principal. He is just so understanding, so nice … and I couldn’t stop thinking that, as a private school, Beecher Prep also needs to be concerned about its bottom line. Perhaps Palacio didn’t care to include the vagaries of school-board politics, beyond the hints she does give. I can understand that, considering the level of the book’s audience.
Then again, this is also in keeping with Palacio’s tendency to downplay August’s defenders. Their existence and actions are important and notable: Jack’s punching of Julian is a turning point for him and his relationship with August; Amos, Miles, and Henry’s defence of August against the bullies from another school marks the end of Julian’s boy war and the point where the rest of Beecher Prep’s fifth grade accepts August as “one of them”. Time and again, however, Palacio reminds us that no matter how important allies are, August still has his own voice and his own agency. He can solve a lot of problems on his own—or, if he needs help, ask for it.
The constant question echoing through my mind as I read, of course, was whether Palacio ever takes her portrayal of August—or any characters, really—over the top. Does Wonder ever approach the syrupy sweet tone of an after-school special? I honestly lost any cynicism I started with as I kept reading. Yes, there’s a happy and somewhat groan-worthy ending … but I think the book earns that with all the other legwork it does. Palacio creates three-dimensional characters who grow and change, and she is able to show that development at a realistic but engaging pace.
All in all, Wonder is a novel that carefully steps around stereotype traps and works hard to create a strong story with believable characters. It impressed me far more than I thought it would. I’ve only read two Carnegie nominees so far, but one of the remaining four will have to be absolutely stunning if it hopes to beat Wonder in my eyes.