Last week, when we were all glued to our TVs and computers waiting for more details on the bombings at the Boston marathon and the ensuing citywide manhunt, I took a break from the news coverage to read Wonder by R. J. Palacio. And I’m so glad I did. I knew what the book was about beforehand, to an extent, but I didn’t realize just how hopeful and uplifting it would be. So now here I am, recommending it to all of you.
Wonder is about a fifth-grader, Auggie (short for August), who’s different from his peers in a big way: he has a major cranio-facial deformity, and has had 27 reconstructive surgeries to his face since birth. The book chronicles his first year in a real school, with other kids. Auggie is a charming and intelligent narrator, but the beauty of the book is that it doesn’t just show events from his point of view. We also hear from two of Auggie’s new friends from school, Summer and Jack; Auggie’s older sister, Via, who’s in her first year of high school; Via’s new boyfriend, Justin; and Miranda, a lifelong friend of Via’s who is suddenly distant. Because the narrators come from different places and are different ages, we get a much more complete picture of Auggie’s life and the ripples it causes than we would if the story were told entirely through his eyes.
Those ripples, by the way, are what the book is about. Auggie’s appearance and health issues don’t just affect him; they affect the people around him in various ways. His family revolves around him, a fact his sister Via finds harder to accept when she has social problems of her own in high school. Meanwhile, the few kids who are nice to Auggie from his first day of school soon discover that befriending the kid with the weird, scary face means being shunned by the popular crowd. Summer is told by a group of girls that she needs to drop Auggie if she wants to be popular, while Jack almost loses Auggie’s friendship in his misplaced efforts to impress one of the popular boys. Everyone in the book has choices to make, from Auggie’s courageous decision to go to school to how other people choose to respond to him.
Wonder has spawned the “Choose Kind” movement, after a precept shared by Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne:
When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.
I can think of few more important lessons for any kid (and, let’s face it, many grown-ups) to learn. Wonder has its scary and sad moments, including a harrowing confrontation with a group of seventh-grade bullies, but ultimately it’s a joyful celebration of kids and teens choosing to stick up for one another. Yes, sometimes remembering and deciding to be kind is a struggle. Yes, it’s likely (in fact, it’s almost certain) that Auggie’s difficulties aren’t over just because he’s won over the kids at his school. But if readers take from Wonder the idea that it’s not bad to make friends with people who are different from you, and that how someone looks doesn’t reflect how they are on the inside, it feels like there’s hope for the world to keep becoming a better place.
Last week, I needed to read this book. I needed to feel that faith that today’s kids will become tomorrow’s kind, thoughtful, intelligent adults. Here’s hoping.