It’s been a good long time since I’ve read a middle-grade novel I would recommend as highly as I would Wonder. This is one of those books, though, that I want to see in every school library and classroom. I want it to be on required reading lists for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I want to be sure that it’s one of those stories that gets talked about and remembered by young readers, so for the many of you out there in the position to make that happen – get on it!
Maybe I’m crazy, and there are actually hundreds of incredible books written for children that age, but back in the day, I scrounged for anything out of the ordinary and mostly ended up with formulaic novels featuring blonde, shiny protagonists. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with blonde, shiny protagonists. They have a right to the same amount of shelf space as anyone else. The problem is, most people are not blond or shiny – even fewer are both – and yet books are absolutely chock-full of peppy, winsome people with unrealistic issues.
Tell me the truth: have you ever asked a person what one time he or she would never choose to relive? I have, on a number of occasions, and the answer is always the same. Junior high. Those three or four years in between the innocence of elementary education and the ignorance of high school are no man’s land. The kids experiencing them just want to get out alive, and those of us who have made the journey look back with a shudder of relief. Back then, I had a face (with braces, and glasses, and some horrific bangs) that only a mother could love. I think I most closely resembled one of the troll doll key chains I insisted on carrying around, and my personality did not make up for the fact that I was also chubby and uncoordinated.
Do you know why? It’s because children that age are short-sighted, insecure, and frightened – even the nice ones! Even the ones who turn their homework assignments in on time and win trophies in soccer! Even the ones with tidy handwriting and perfect attendance! The beginning of puberty just kicks itself up into a tizzy and turns pleasant children into sullen, explosive, sneaky preteens. And guess what? We still have to love them in this phase, and part of my definition of love is finding books that make kids going through tough times feel better.
Wonder is one of those books. It’s written from the perspective of five people, although the central character is August Pullman, a ten-year old boy born with an incredibly rare combination of genetic disorders that lead to his having a painfully deformed face. The story winds its way through his first year attending school after having been home-schooled for years; while the fifth grade is difficult for everyone, this bright, kind child has been dealt a particularly rough hand, and his problems are the type that cannot be hidden from prying, judgmental eyes.
(from the perspective of Justin, August’s older sister Olivia’s boyfriend):
i can’t sleep tonight. my head is full of thoughts that won’t turn off. lines from my monologues. elements of the periodic table that i’m supposed to be memorizing. theorems i’m supposed to be understanding. olivia. auggie.
miranda’s words keep coming back: the universe was not kind to auggie pullman. i’m thinking about that a lot and everything it means. she’s right about that. the universe was not kind to auggie pullman.
what did that little kid ever do to deserve his sentence? what did the parents do? or olivia? she once mentioned that some doctor told her parents that the odds of someone getting the same combination of syndromes that came together to make auggie’s face were like one in four million. so doesn’t that make the universe a giant lottery, then? you purchase a ticket when you’re born. and it’s all just random whether you get a good ticket or a bad ticket. it’s all just luck.
my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. 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 care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. like with parents who adore you blindly. and a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. and a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. and even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds. (loc 2580)
The universe takes care of all its birds. It doesn’t always feel that way to me, but I still the love of the idea of it. Palacio writes characters who are painful and real, but not without hope. They aren’t nearly as blonde or shiny as many fictional children are, and yet they have untapped reserves of resilience and compassion. Hope, resilience, and compassion are the best gifts I could conceivably imagine giving a child, so when I find them woven into a beautiful story, I can’t help but want to put a copy in every kid’s hands…
For more about RJ Palacio, head this way.