Book review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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“Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?”

August Pullman was born with a severe facial deformity that frightens children and makes adults do a double take.  All he wants is to be treated like a normal child – to play with friends, to walk around without being stared at, to not be made fun of or called names.  But everywhere Auggie goes, people stare.  They point.  They comment on his appearance.  And, for the most part, he’s used to it.

But when his parents decide that it’s time for Auggie to try out mainstream school, he’s just not sure if he can handle the other kids.  After all, kids are cruel, and middle school kids might be the worst.  Can Auggie survive his first year of middle school?  Can he make real friends and act like a normal kid for once?

Spoilers ahead.

Let me just start off by saying that I feel like such a jerk for not liking this book more.  My problem is not with the overall theme of the story – I think a middle-grade novel that teaches kids about bullying is great – but with the resolution of everything.

At the beginning, the kids are mean to Auggie.  It’s hard enough being the new kid, but when you look this different, it’s even harder.  The kids, for the most part, treat Auggie like he has a terrible, contagious illness.  They won’t stand next to him. They won’t touch him. They won’t touch anything he’s touched.  They don’t want to be anywhere near him.   Sure, Auggie makes a couple friends.  There’s a wonderful girl named Summer who takes him under her wing and honestly doesn’t see a difference between being friends with him and being friends with anybody else in the school.  There’s also a boy, Jack, who is conflicted because he thinks Auggie is cool and wants to be friends with him, but he also wants to be popular and well-liked.  But for the most part, the kids in his grade are absolutely awful.

The problem, for me, comes at the turning point of the novel when Auggie and his class go on a camping trip.  (As a side note, my school also did this in fifth grade and I didn’t know this was a thing in other places!)  Auggie is thrilled when the first day of the trip goes well.  He’s able to participate in all of the activities, nobody is being outwardly mean to him, and the one kid who’s relentlessly bullied him since he started doesn’t even come on the trip.  On the second day, kids from another school join in.  A group of bigger kids corners Auggie and Jack in the woods, teasing them and ripping Auggie’s sweatshirt and stealing his hearing aids.  Some boys from Auggie’s class come to their aid, defending him and physically pulling him out of harm’s way, which is wonderful, of course.  I’m glad that those boys intervened, but this serves as the catalyst for everybody in the school suddenly accepting Auggie.  They start calling him “little dude” and suddenly want to spend time with him.  He becomes like a special project or mascot for these kids and that just rubbed me the wrong way.

It gets worse at the fifth grade graduation when Auggie is literally awarded a medal for having a disability.  Kids fall all over themselves to get a photo with him.  Suddenly, everybody wants to hang out with Auggie.  They’ve all forgotten how horribly mean they were to him at the beginning of the book, and so has he.  And for all of Auggie’s insistence on wanting to be treated like a normal child, he’s happy to be put on display so that everyone can feel better about themselves for overcoming their initial prejudice.

Does this book teach an important lesson?  Yes.  Does it do it in the wrong way?  I think so.  Yes, kids should be taught to accept people who look or act different, but not out of pity.  We should accept them because they’re people with feelings, not because we feel bad for them or because we think we’ll get a pat on the back for doing it.  If somebody spends an entire year saying, “Please treat me the same as any other kid my age,” the correct response is not giving them a medal for being different.

I guess I just expected something more from a book that so many thousands of people have raved about.

Final rating: 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3