This post reviews R. J. Palacio’s children’s book Wonder (Knopf, 2012).
I’ve reviewed a lot of children’s books with homeschooling themes on this blog over the years. This one may be my favorite. August Pullman is a boy born with serious, serious face abnormalities, so much so that his parents homeschool him until the fifth grade to protect him somewhat from the constant shocked looks and whispered conversations that follow him wherever he goes. But for the fifth grade they decide it’s time he starts learning how to live in the real world a bit, so they send him to school.
The book is all about this first year of school for August. Homeschooling only exists as backstory. The few times it is mentioned we get the sense that it was effective. When he enters school he is not the absolute best student but very near the top of his class–not behind in subjects like he and his mother feared he might be. August endures constant minor slights and occasional major bullying for most of the year, suggesting that his parents were wise to protect him from this for the first several years of his education. Some readers might think it would have been better to keep protecting him, but the central theme of the book is how a growing number of classmates overcome their instinctive horror and group-think ostracism of August just because he’s different and eventually see August for the normal kid that he is. It’s also the story of how August deals with all of the torture and overcomes. None of this would have been possible if he’d stayed out of school. Palacio seems to be saying that it is better to suffer and overcome than never to have suffered at all, or, more blandly, “no pain, no gain.”
What makes the book amazing though is Palacio’s talent for capturing the voices of several unique and robust characters. The narrative unfolds through overlapping first-person accounts from several of the principal characters, including August himself. Often when writers attempt this the voices all sound kind of the same–and rather like the natural voice of the author. Palacio captured beautifully the nuances of each character’s inflections and speech patterns, all while furthering the plot along at a brisk pace. I read the whole thing in a few hours and didn’t want to take breaks for anything.
A second reason I loved this book is its warm humanity. For most of the book my eyes were watery. Palacio created a believable world peopled by real characters, complete with the cruelty children can impose on one another and the complicity of childish adults, but also by a believable illustration of how kindness and empathy can trump cruelty. As it so happens I’m also reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book that tries to explain why violence has declined so much in the last few centuries and especially since World War II. Pinker gives several broad historical arguments but also points to four inborn characteristics we all possess. He writes,
Empathy (particularly in the sense of sympathetic concern) prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own. Self-control allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to inhibit them accordingly. The moral sense sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people in a culture, sometimes in ways that decrease violence, though often (when the norms are tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) in ways that increase it. And the faculty of reason allows us to extricate ourselves from our parochial vantage points, to reflect on the ways in which we live our lives, to deduce ways in which we could be better off, and to guide the application of the other better angels of our nature. (p. xxv)
In August Pullman’s story the school he attends (a small, private school in New York City) actively fosters Pinker’s good moral sense by trying to cultivate kindness and acceptance among the students. August’s shocking physical deformities sorely test that moral sense, but ultimately the better angels prevail and the reader experiences along with August a cathartic celebration of the human capacity for love. A great book for anyone eight and up.