It's been a while since we had a good old fashioned book review, probably due in large part to the plethora of reviews written during Cybils season. I've taken pity on all of you for a while and given you some respite from the world of tedious book reviews with top ten lists, delightful videos, blasts to the past, and musings on modern poetry, standalone titles, and the end of the world. But, as the Walrus said, the time has come. I've been saving up my evaluative juices for a truly worthy title and I've finally come across one.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio is, quite possibly, the best book I have read thus far this year. I know it's only March, but I've read quite a bit already, being a bibliophile and a librarian. In Wonder, we meet August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy with a terribly facial abnormality. People stop and stare at him on the street and small children point at him and hide behind their mothers. Auggie has always stayed pretty much away from people outside of his own family, hiding behind an astronaut helmet and homeschooling to avoid coming into contact with the strangers that have always been so repelled by him. But now Auggie has surpassed his mother's teaching abilities and he will have to go to a real school. With students. And teachers. Strangers who will stare at him and shrink from him and make fun of him.
What follows is a heartbreaking but genuine account of how difficult it is to be different and the journey to acceptance. The kids in Auggie's class are not nice to him--they invent a game called the Plague wherein anyone who touches Auggie has exactly thirty seconds to wash his or her hands before catching the Plague. But it isn't these overt cruelties that are the most harrowing. Instead, I found myself wincing at Auggie's description of the everyday double-takes and the small injustices. There is one scene in particular where Auggie overhears one of his friends talking about him to the school bully, saying some horribly hurtful things. At first I was horrified but then I remembered times when I myself said unkind things that I didn't mean simply because of the crowd I was with. I didn't mean to be hurtful but, as one character's babysitter tells him, you don't have to mean to hurt someone to hurt them.
This isn't just Auggie's story, though, it's the story of everyone around him, particularly his family. We see the pain his sister, Via, goes through as she starts high school and wars with her own shame over his differences. Again it seems just terrible but can't you imagine how hard it would be to be the deformed kid's big sister everyone tiptoes around? You can kind of understand where she's coming from, you might even feel the same and you feel absolutely awful for it. But we also see how much Via loves Auggie, how protective she is of him and how she would do absolutely anything to make him smile.
Once or twice, I found the horridness of kids a little too far to be believed. Would a seventh grader really beat up a fifth grader and steal his hearing aids just because he's different? But on the whole, the kids at Auggie's school were just kids. The good ones weren't all good (see the above incident) and the bad ones weren't all bad. Even Auggie isn't super-humanly good, as the heroes of kids books can sometimes be. He's just a ten-year-old boy. He gets angry at his mom for no reason and takes his sister for granted.
Overall, this is a very beautiful book about the power of kindness. We go on a real roller coaster as we watch the characters learn to be kind to their friends, to their families, to strangers, and most of all to themselves. Palacio is absolutely genius. She manages to get all of that across without ever once seeming preachy or making her characters--who are kids after all--seem inauthentic. Somehow both heartbreakingly honest and sweetly uplifting, Wonder is just that--a truly wonderful book that should not be missed by readers of any age.
Final Grade: A+