Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
The cover of the novel Wonder features a boy’s face. His face has just one eye that has “wonder” written above it, long bangs, and large ears. This face is prominent on a baby blue background with a few splotches of a different shade of blue. The cover represents August Pullman, the protagonist ten-year-old boy suffering from a severe case of Treacher Collins syndrome (a genetically acquired facial disfiguration). Just as one shouldn’t judge the value of the book based on the splotches on the cover, one should not be prejudiced against Auggie due to his appearance. This novel is just as special and inspiring as August Pullman. Although it is labeled as a children’s novel, it is truly for all ages.
August begins school for the first time as a fifth grader. He goes to visit the school and meets the principal before school starts. The principal handpicks three students in August’s class to take him on a grand tour of the building. One of the chosen kids, Julian, makes fun of Auggie on the tour because of how his face looks. August courageously decides to go to school, despite the rude remarks dealt to him on the tour before school even went into session.
One of his teachers, Mr. Browne, puts up a precept monthly on the board to inspire the students. The September precept is: “When given the chance between right or being kind, choose kind” (p. 48). This is the challenge for August’s fellow classmates, namely, whether to act superior or to treat August as a human being, despite his distinct appearance.
Palacio provides a diverse array of characters to accompany August on his journey through middle school. Summer is a girl in his grade who decides that keeping August company at lunch is more important that sitting with her group of immature and whispering friends. Summer chooses kindness. Summer was not told by the principal to hang out with August to raise his self esteem; she just does it. After the first day at lunch, Summer likes August’s personality so much that she sits with him every day, regardless of his messy eating that is a result of his disability. Summer is the complete opposite of Julian, who throughout the year finds ways to bully and torment August, comparing him to a zombie, for example. Jack is a complex character in the novel. He is one the kids the principal chooses to take August on the tour. The principal as well assigns Jack the job of being August’s friend. August considers Jack a good friend until he one day overhears Jack telling Julian that he would kill himself if he looked like August. Jack proves himself to be a phony with these dangerous words, having only said them to please Julian, the “cool kid.”
Here lies the classic bullying conflict: The choice between doing the wrong thing to be accepted, or taking the risk of doing the noble thing. We are faced with situations like these daily. What’s significant is what we choose to do, and how we choose to do it. This is perhaps the central lesson of the novel.
Another quote that Mr. Browne puts up on the board is “Your deeds are like your monuments. Built with memories instead of stone”(p.65). The idea is that people will remember you for how you treat those around you. August at this point in the novel sees Jack in a different light and realizes that he is not a true friend. Jack did not know that August overheard his conversation with Julian, and was really missing his company.
A few days later, Jack is faced with the same conflict. The teacher makes Jack and August partners for a science project, which leads to Julian approaching Jack and convincing him to drop August the “freak” as his partner. Jack chooses kindness and punches Julian in the face to show August his loyalty and to prove that he wants to be friends again. This leads to all of Jack’s friends dumping him and harassing him, although he is happy because being friends with August is more important to him.
The novel is rich with themes , including the famous question of “Do things occur coincidentally?” August is granted parents who adore him, and a sister, Olivia, who spends her life looking out for him and being anxious that people will treat him differently, judging him by his looks rather than by his unbelievable character. August gains faithful friends like Summer and Jack who truly do support him. August is very bright and excels in his classes where his other classmates do not. Olivia’s boyfriend has a very interesting outlook on August’s predicament. He decides that “no,no it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. And the universe doesn’t. It takes cares of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see... The universe takes care of all its birds” (p.204). Everyone in life is given his/her share of strengths and struggles, but it’s the way we choose to look at it all that matters most.
At graduation, the principal presents August with a medal for his character and academic success. For this, August receives an emotional standing ovation. The principal gives August a powerful introduction, saying: “If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary — the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, . . . someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God. . . . or whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in” (p. 301).
This novel teaches us to be compassionate, to be kind, to give people a chance, to believe in one’s inner goodness, to view situations in a positive light, to laugh, and to be the best people we can be. At the end of the day, these qualities are more important than our exam scores or who we eat lunch with between classes.
Wonder is a heartwarming, inspirational, life-altering novel that I strongly recommend. A movie based on the novel is going to be released in 2017, starring Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts.