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'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio - Book Review

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Knopf
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio was published in February 2012
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • 320 Pages
I don't usually cover juvenile fiction, but every now and then a book comes along with great crossover appeal and it demands a review. Wonder by R.J. Palacio is such a book. The story focuses on Auggie Pullman, a boy born with severe facial deformities who has never gone to school because he has been in and out of hospitals his whole life. His health has stabilized, though, and his parents decide to send him to a private middle school for fifth grade. Wonder starts in the first person from Auggie's perspective, and then switches to several other perspectives -- his sister, some kids at the school. This style allows readers to get more parts of the story while maintaining a first person narrative. Palacio does not, however, write from parents' or teachers' perspectives, which keeps the book young and hopeful.

Some have labeled Wonder a book about bullying, but that seems too narrow. Yes, the plot is often driven by a struggle with bullies. But this is primarily a coming of age story, and even the bullying is not as cruel as if it had a teen or older target audience. Having a main character who is profoundly different allows Palacio a forum to magnify what most middle school students experience -- the struggle to figure out who they are and how to navigate a more complex social structure than they experienced as young children. In that way, the book is something most people should be able to relate to.

Auggie does, of course, have his own challenges too, and that adds depth to the story. I especially appreciated how Palacio portrayed the characters who were not particularly mean but still did not know how to react to Auggie. In our book club we had a long discussion about this part of the novel -- about what to do when you see someone who is different and want to be kind, but instinctively look away too fast or want to look too long. More than a book about "bullying," I found this story to be about the struggle of ordinary people to be kind.

If this were adult fiction, our book club noted, the problems would be darker. Characters would probably take drugs or rebel more heavily. Families would be more broken. I'm glad this is not adult fiction. I know the world is complex, but sometimes it is good to have the light of a child's voice -- a ray of more innocent hope. This is not a saccharine story, but it is for fifth graders, and it is therefore not overly sad. There are parts where I laughed out loud and parts where I cried. There are times when I stopped reading to talk to my kids about how they treat others. A good story, content to think on, and emotion -- what more could you want from a weekend read?

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