Wonder by R.J.Palacio

Wonder by R.J.Palacio (Knopf, 2012) has over 5000 (mostly) 5-star reviews on Amazon; it’s apparently a phenomenon. 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, born with severe craniofacial anomalies, enters fifth grade at public school after  having been homeschooled all his life. He makes a few friends, and a few enemies who decide that his appearance makes him fair game for bullying; the majority of the kids don’t take sides.

Wonder is, in essence, a book about the importance of taking sides, of actively choosing to be generous and acting upon that impulse. In the context of Auggie’s condition as a form of outsiderness subject to discrimination, I was reminded of Beverly Tatum’s quote about the conveyor belt of racism.

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt… Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around…But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt- unless they are actively antiracist- they will find themselves carried along with the others.” 

There is everything to like and admire about a book that demands positive action from those who would remain bystanders and consider neutrality a sufficient response in the face of injustice. The fifth-grade English teacher at Auggie’s school gives the class a precept every month; the first precept is: “If you have the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” As the novel progresses, we witness the precept put to the test, and it’s heart-rending to read about Auggie’s struggle to be treated like a “normal” person in the real world.

I lent this book to a wonderful warm-hearted 10-year-old friend who read it in one breath and loved it. I would probably love it too were I a middle schooler, but seeing as I’m a cynical old biddy, I confess to two reservations.  [SPOILERS] My main issue was that the kids were too nice to be realistic–there’s ONE truly rotten apple in the entire fifth grade class. It’s simply too hard to believe that so many kids would value kindness over popularity and be so nice to Auggie. What’s this school, Utopia Elementary over in Messier 82? Which brings me to my second reservation, about the book’s ending. [MAJOR SPOILER] At the close of the school year, Auggie gets a medal and finds, to his surprise, that he is popular.  Auggie’s essentially being rewarded for being himself, for living his life as a child with an anomaly, and I found that somewhat condescending. (For more about this issue, see, for example, this parent’s discomfort when her disabled daughter is called heroic.)  So I’m going to recommend this book whole-heartedly if you plan to buy it for a younger reader or if you look fondly upon your school years, and recommend it with slight reservations for the rest of the world.

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