This was our book club selection this past month. There seems to be general agreement that books to read during the summer should be fairly undemanding, both in terms of being quick and easy to read, and not dealing with difficult or painful themes.
It hadn’t actually been the intended selection, but whatever that was, there was some problem with the book order and thus the need to come up with another idea quickly. Wonder was recommended by the children’s librarian (it is marketed to middle school children), and it turned out to be a good choice.
One could argue, of course, about whether the topic is in fact difficult or painful. The main character, Auggie, is a ten-year-old with a facial deformity so bad that even people who want to be accepting of his differences may flinch when they first see it.
And when he starts school for the first time (having been homeschooled previously due to frequent surgeries), there are plenty of kids who are not inclined to be accepting. Whether because they are repulsed by his appearance itself, or because they care more about acceptance by the “in” crowd, few student extend friendship to Auggie in the first months of school.
But Auggie has an upbeat approach to life and a sense of humor that helps him cope with an undeniably difficult life. His parents are full of love for him, apparently doing a fairly good job of finding a balance between protecting him and pushing him to go out and make his way in the world of middle school.
(One review on amazon.com criticized the book for “factual” errors, one being having middle school start with fifth grade rather than sixth. But my older son attended a middle school that started with fifth grade, and I doubt it is the only one like that, although it is certainly not the usual setup.)
Some reader reviews criticized the book for making the parents too good. As a matter of fact, some criticize the entire book for being too “sugar-sweet,” presenting an unrealistic version of middle school, because in real life it would have been much, much worse, and even those few kids who befriended Auggie would not have done so.
There are reviews such as one by a mother of a child with craniofacial abnormalities, who says that R. J. Palacio captured Auggie’s voice and experiences so perfectly that it’s hard to believe Palacio doesn’t herself have a child like that. And then there are reviews that argue that Palacio did not capture Auggie or middle school experiences at all realistically.
Is it because there are huge differences among schools? I have been impressed over and over with the school system here, and how well (some though hardly all) other students have accepted my special-needs son (mild autism) and helped him when he has trouble coping. But no doubt there are other schools out there where he would not have fared nearly as well.
I found myself wondering many times how I would have reacted to seeing Auggie for the first time. I’ve often wished I could be the kind of person who immediately sees past the surface to the person underneath, but in spite of good intentions I would probably be one of those who flinch at first seeing him.
I’ve read elsewhere that people who look very different appreciate it when people neither look away from deformities nor stare at them, but just look at them normally, like at anyone else. Personally I find this difficult to do until you get to know the person. Where do I look? What do I look at? Am I staring? Am I avoiding looking at one part of the body? It’s hard to say how I would look if it were someone “normal” because then I wouldn’t be thinking at all about where to look so I wouldn’t be conscious of it.
Some reviewers have said it is a decent story but not particularly well-written. Since it’s told from the point of view of children and teens (not just Auggie), one can hardly expect polished prose. I found it an engaging read, I cared about Auggie and the other characters, and I enjoyed the positive outcome. (OK, so maybe I should have said spoiler alert first, but if you want a tragic ending like some other books I’ve read recently, read something else.)