I came upon this book pretty much by chance. I was traveling and therefore looking for some eBooks that I could borrow from the library, since I don’t like to carry physical books with me when I am on a flight. That’s how I came upon Wonder. It had a very intriguing cover, and the fact that it was soon going to be made into a movie sealed the deal. I thought it would at least be a decent read.
I am happy to say that I greatly underestimated how good it was. Wonder is the story of a boy, August, who has a very rare facial deformity that makes him look literally like a zombie. He was born this way, and while he wasn’t conscious of his appearance and the reaction it elicits when he was small, he gradually becomes increasingly conscious of it as he grows older. Anyone who sees him for the first time, even if they have heard about him, are taken aback and cannot help staring. Smaller kids are downright scared. While August, or Auggie as he is called, has very loving and supportive parents and a fiercely protective older sister, he understandably does not like to go out in public and is homeschooled by his mother. Apart from the facial deformation, he has no other abnormality and is a bright kid who does well in academics and especially likes science. He is also just like any other boy who likes to play video games and loves Star Wars.
The book starts with Auggie attending school for the first time. This is a private middle school in which he did well enough on the entrance test to be admitted, and while he initially doesn’t want to go and be stared at by the other kids – even he acknowledges that he would stare if he was in their shoes – he does end up going, partly at the tentative urging of his parents who think it would be good for him, and partly because of the principal, who is extremely supportive and understanding. Wonder is the story of Auggie’s first year in school as a fifth grader, and of how the other kids in his grade and the school react to him, initially and over the course of the year. It starts being told from Auggie’s perspective – which is as you would expect – but then switches to being told from the perspective of several key people in his life including the two closest friends he makes at school, his sister, his sister’s best friend who has known him since he was a baby, and even his sister’s boyfriend. (His sister is just starting high school, and there’s another story there, but it is not central to the main plot.)
It would be easy to dismiss Wonder as just another kid’s book – it is, after all, written mostly from the perspective of a ten year old. However, while all kids should definitely read this book for the values of courage, acceptance, empathy, and kindness that it espouses, even I, as an adult, found it very heartwarming and uplifting. As one of the characters in the book ponders about what Auggie ever did to deserve the “sentence” of his one-in-four-million facial defect and whether this made the universe just a giant lottery where “it’s all just random whether you get a good ticket or a bad ticket,” he also sees how the universe takes care of its most fragile creatures like Auggie by giving him a wealth of good things in his life – parents who love him unconditionally for what he is and are unwavering in their support, a sister who adores him, a father who has a great sense of humor is always making him laugh, a small but equally loving extended family, great teachers at school, a principal he really likes and respects, and eventually good friends who, in time, can see beyond his face to the person beneath. Of course, we, as adults, know that this kind of balance does not happen for everyone who is the victim of a tragedy, it does highlight the fact that even the most down-and-out person has some blessings that they can count.
In addition, I found the exhortation from the principal in his commencement address to the fifth graders at the end of the school year to be “kinder than is necessary” very inspiring, and not just for kids. It’s something we could all remember and do more of throughout our lives; it would definitely make the world a better place to live. Apparently, this quote comes from the author, J. M. Barrie (best known for Peter Pan), in a book called The Little White Bird: “Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?”
In addition to being very well written, Wonder was also very contemporary and relatable, such as in its references to Star Wars and PlayStations. In one scenario, Auggie’s sister, Via, storms into his room to confront him about something and despite slamming the door, Auggie does not even look up from the PlayStation he is on. Via says, “I hated how zombified his video games made him.” This is so identical to what happens in my own house that I really had to laugh.
I liked this book so much that I actually went out and bought a physical copy of it after finishing it. It is definitely a keeper.
Author: R. J. Palacio
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: February 2012
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.