‘Wonder’ is an American children’s novel about August “Auggie” Pullman, and 11-year-old living in Manhattan. Auggie has a rare medical condition giving him a severe facial deformity. Until now, Auggie has been home-schooled by his mother, but the book opens at the point his parents decide to enrol him in a private school. It charts through a series of first person narratives his first year at senior school.
The book has become something of a word of mouth success, and I can certainly see why. It is incredibly heart-warming – a classic story of an outsider overcoming adversity. It is full of positive, reassuring aphorisms such as “funny how sometimes you worry a lot about something and it turns out to be nothing” and “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind”.
If the novel had just followed Auggie through his first year at school through his eyes only, the narrative might have become stale, but Palacio adopts an interesting structure to avoid this. After each few chapters the narrative baton is passed to another character. This person then recaps the previous events from their perspective, giving a new version of events, then takes the story forward. This structure keeps things moving, and together with the very short chapters, most no longer than three pages, often fewer, the books 250 odd pages zip by.
The author has some real insight into the challenges of living with a condition such as that Auggie has, and shows this in various ways. As an example. Auggie has been growing a braid for several years, similar to that worn by trainee Jedi apprentices in the Star Wars universe. In a symbolic act of growing up he cuts this braid off, in an attempt to gain acceptance from his schoolmates. All children, whether living with a disability or condition, or not, will have experienced similar pressures. Auggie is shunned by some of his classmates, bullied, spoken about behind his back, but with the support of his family, friends, and teachers, he overcomes, and ends the year with a school medal for bravery.
Auggie has an older sister just starting high school. She experiences similar challenges – fitting in, dealing with the cool kids, starting dating etc – which gives the book a broader appeal than the 9-12 year olds that will be the majority of its readers. But I suspect the book will not have a wider cross-over appeal into the adult market (despite it being chosen as a book group read according to some of the Amazon reviews I have looked at), unlike, say, ‘The Curious Incident’. It is, despite its subject matter, simply too safe and saccharine. Almost everyone is just so nice. Yes the kids shun Auggie at first, but ultimately it is the instigator of this treatment (Julian) who is the loser, and end up leaving the school. There is a scary piece of bullying by some 13-14 year olds at the end of the novel, but these are brushed off relatively easily, and end up paying the price. Auggie starts wearing a complicated hearing aid part way through the school year, which in any other school would have been the start of a tsunami of jokes about androids and aliens, but in the privileged halls of Beecher Prep goes without comment. The book lacks any serious menace or peril.
Despite these reservations, I would recommend the novel for any child about to change school, or faced with a challenging difference. They will find it reassuring and if just one child is persuaded to be kind instead of mean, it will be worth it.