I’ve been meaning to read Wonder for ages, but even though it came out over two years ago, it’s still nearly impossible to find in softcover (to keep down the expenses of this site, I try not to buy hardcovers very often). I eventually borrowed it through my daughter’s middle school library summer lending program. It was worth the wait. It’s the touching story (yes, I cried several times, although admittedly that’s not saying that much) of a 5th grader starting at a public school for the first time. Auggie has been homeschooled up until now because of health issues, which include severe facial irregularities, so starting middle school is a somewhat terrifying adventure.
The story is told primarily from Auggie’s point of view, although we also hear from his sister and several of his friends. This approach adds a lot to the story, allowing us to see firsthand the issues that other people in Auggie’s life are dealing with. It makes those characters really come alive while not requiring that Auggie-as-narrator be able to read their minds.
Despite all the things he deals with, Auggie is in many ways a very normal kid who most readers will identify with. One of Auggie’s major accomplishments is surviving 5th grade—and that’s not easy, regardless of who you are.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Humor in Dark Times
What could be a searing and tragic book is instead touching and funny because of the sense of humor that Auggie and his family approach life with. I cried as I read about Auggie’s funny birth story because I put myself in his mother’s shoes (they had no idea before his birth that he had any health problems, and then suddenly their baby boy might not live through the night). But she focuses on the nurse who farted the whole time and she tells the story of his birth as a celebration of his life without sugar-coating how difficult it was for all of them.
Auggie routinely makes jokes mildly at his own expense, which seems to help his friends feel more comfortable about not just pretending Auggie looks like everyone else. Auggie is a sweet and funny narrator, while also being painfully honest at times.
Auggie’s family isn’t perfect, but they’re loving and sweet and well-intentioned. When we see the point of view of outsiders, we can really see what they have going for them. Lots of people who would be considered “lucky” compared to Auggie and his family don’t have anywhere near the love and support that they share.
That said, his older sister Via hasn’t had an easy time of it. She’s painfully aware that Auggie does—and needs to—take priority over her most of the time. She struggles with being defined by him even when he’s not around, and then she feels guilty about wanting to have spaces that are primarily hers. She knows she’ll never have children because she carries the gene that caused her brother’s issues, even though it doesn’t show up in her. But she’s also willing to literally fight anyone who makes her little brother uncomfortable or says anything disparaging about him. She feels very real to me.
Auggie’s dad confesses that he threw away one of Auggie’s favorite things ever—an astronaut’s helmet that covered his whole head. Auggie’s dad has kept this a secret, and after his confession he asks Auggie not to tell anyone. His intentions were sweet—he missed seeing Auggie’s face—but the missing astronaut helmet was a theme throughout the book, so it was a pretty big deal what he did! It’s not a choice I would be happy about.
Julian is the main bully in the book, and he’s pretty irredeemable. Even his mother crusades to get Auggie removed from the school. Julian never gets his own chapter in the book, although you can read his point of view here (The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story). He’s a subtle bully, saying things that most adults will dismiss but that he knows Auggie will hear as the insults they are. He tries to turn all the kids in the school against Auggie, and for a while it seems like it’s going to work. There’s a school-wide game called Plague which pretty much consists of not touching Auggie or anything that Auggie has touched. They also target Auggie’s friends, making it clear that being friends with him ensures that they’re outcasts as well. But eventually the other kids don’t have the energy and stamina to keep making Auggie’s life difficult. And then when some older kids from another school start to beat Auggie up, even kids who used to bully him come to his aid. The tide turns, and Auggie is part of the school—Julian is the one who’s left behind.
Jack is another really interesting character. When we see him through Auggie’s eyes, he’s a good friend who says truly horrific things when he thinks Auggie can’t hear him (basically that if he looked like Auggie, he’d kill himself). It’s awful, and Auggie rightfully feels utterly betrayed. Then we get to see Jack’s point of view and the complicated history he has with Auggie. We also learn that the horrible things he said weren’t exactly on purpose—he got caught up by Julian’s pushing and couldn’t even remember what he said. While I can understand that a bit, Auggie shows what an amazing person he is by forgiving Jack—after Jack punches Julian for saying something nasty about Auggie. And Jack does his best to deserve that second chance.
Summer is the first person to befriend Auggie, and Auggie is pretty sure she was put up to it by someone. She’s hurt when he tells her this because it turns out she really thinks he’s a nice kid and a good friend. However, they get past that rough spot. Her “friends” basically try to stage an intervention, forcing her to choose between them and Auggie. She chooses Auggie.
Via has some friend issues as high school starts. She drifts away from her former best friend Miranda. When we see Miranda’s point of view, we learn that things were more complicated than they seemed to Via. Eventually they make up and are good friends again.
Boyfriends and Girlfriends
Via starts dating Justin. We see his point of view of Via and her family, which is an interesting insight into family dynamics. It becomes clear that Jack and Summer like each other, but nothing really comes of it.
Via and Auggie’s grandmother passed away unexpectedly. She had been a huge support for Via and for her mother, so her death is quite a blow. Via’s mom has always been strong in the face of everything dealing with Auggie, so when she crumples under her mom’s death, it’s really hard. It shows the cracks in her strong exterior.
Their beloved dog, Daisy, is sick and eventually dies. It happens in the midst of a family argument which is immediately put aside because Daisy’s death puts everything in perspective. Auggie adored Daisy, who loved him unconditionally and without ever looking at him like he looked strange.
When Auggie goes over to Summer’s house, he learns that she’s biracial when he sees a picture of her father. Before that, he had no idea. Her father was in the army and was killed in action.
It’s very clear that Julian is from a rich family. Jack really isn’t. This creates a power dynamic in Julian’s mind, although Jack manages to defy it.
I’m sensitive to this for many reasons, but it bothered me that the boys who play Dungeons & Dragons over lunch were clearly nice but hopeless nerds. They tended to side with Auggie or at least stay neutral in the school battle, but they were also the quintessential example of being too obsessed with something to ever be a normal part of society. This was a minor point but made multiple times. It felt like a lazy stereotype to me, and it bothered me, especially in a book about accepting people along with whatever makes them different.
Of course the bullies are awful, and little kids say terrible things without even realizing it. But Auggie is also aware of every person who looks away quickly, every person who sneaks looks when they think he won’t notice, all the little things that show how very different he is. He deals with it without being angry, but he’s aware of it. It made me think 1. about times I’ve done things like sneak a look at someone when I think I’m being subtle and 2. the times I’ve felt like an outsider who’s being looked at and talked about behind my back. It made Auggie really easy to identify with, even if his specific experience is something I can’t quite imagine.
The multiple viewpoints work really well to see many aspects of the story and to make even minor characters have more depth. There are some big issues brought up, but the situations are mostly things that readers will recognize and identify with, even if the details are a bit different. This is a good book for maybe precocious 8 year olds up through middle school, and if possible I’d highly recommend using it as a way to talk with your kid about bullying, acceptance of differences, feeling like an outsider, the struggle of being close to someone dealing with major issues, and all the other important topics that might be relevant to your child.
My daughter really liked it. She gave it the highest praise: “That was a GOOD ending. It summed everything up and it didn’t go on too long.” She liked that Mr. Tushman told Auggie that he wished they’d come to him earlier—she hates it when the plot relies on kids not telling adults the truth. She would also like to point out that she plays D&D, and she has plenty of friends! (And the full-to-capacity game group at her middle school also makes it clear that playing D&D isn’t a stigma that must be overcome.)
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Published in 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf
A stand-alone novel, but 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts is a companion book
Borrowed from my daughter’s school library, thanks to their wonderful summer lending program