We’re four months into the year, and R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is already getting the kind of Newbery buzz that Okay for Now had at this time last year. There’s a long way to go until January, but prizes or not, Palacio deserves serious recognition for writing about something rarely found in children’s lit.
“The universe was not kind to Auggie Pullman,” observes one of his friends. Born with a severe facial deformity, August (Auggie) has spent most of his life in and out of the hospital. He’s protected by loving parents who homeschool him and a fiercely devoted sister. When Auggie turns 10, his parents enroll him at the local junior high, forcing him out of his comfort zone. You can imagine what happens next. As Palacio said in an interview, there’s something about junior high that turns kids into Lord of the Flies. As hard as it was to read about the bullying, I was a lot more enraged by some of the kids’ parents—one classmate’s mom actually Photoshops Auggie out of the class photo. Auggie’s face attracts plenty of unwanted attention, most of which he endures with dark humor. But he finds kindness, too, and true friendship. Indeed, kindness is at the heart of this book: as one of Auggie’s teachers reminds us, being kind is more important than being right.
It would easy to turn Auggie into a victim. He’s not. Facial features aside, Auggie is your typical ten-year-old. He loves video games and Star Wars (there are enough GalaxyFarFarAway references to crush a Death Star. Plus, Tom Angleberger blurbed the cover). He holds grudges and can be selfish to a fault. I loved peeling back the layers of Auggie’s complex personality. Palacio further shakes things up by switching narrators every few chapters—after seeing things from Auggie’s POV, we jump into his sister Via’s head, where we learn just how much the Pullman family revolves around Auggie. From there we hop through several classmates’ brains and Via’s ex-best friend. The one that surprised me the most was Via’s boyfriend. His section seemed extraneous until I realized he was there to show us the Pullmans from an outsider’s perspective.
Palacio writes with a light touch. The language is deceptively simple, then once in awhile she comes up with a line that leaves you winded. Despite the serious themes, Wonder never comes across as an “issues” book. Like Angelberger, Palacio perfectly captures the manic, fun-yet-angsty tone of junior high. And while Auggie’s world isn’t as wacky or all-out Star Wars obsessed as the kids in Origami Yoda, it’s every bit as authentic. You could even call it a wonder splendiferous.