He sees the looks of horror people give him when he walks past them on the street. He desperately wants to be an “ordinary” looking kid, but he’s not.
Ten-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, protagonist of “Wonder” by R. J. Palacio, suffers from a recessive mutant gene that left him with mandibulofacial dysostosis. In short, Auggie was born with serious cranial-facial deformities (think of the character of Sloth in “The Goonies,” played by John Matuszak).
At the start of “Wonder,” Auggie is facing possibly the biggest trial of his young life—entering fifth grade at Beecher Prep School. Due to multiple surgeries, Auggie had previously been too weak and sick to attend public or private school, so his parents had homeschooled him. Truth be told, his parents were also apprehensive about the emotional abuse he might face in a regular school. But now that he’s stronger, they’ve decided that his world needs to expand.
Auggie tells us, “I can’t say I always wanted to go to school because that wouldn’t be exactly true. What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like everyone other kid going to school. Have lots of friends and hang out after school and stuff like that.”
In a perfect world, the students at Beecher Prep would have accepted Auggie and treated him kindly, but this is a very imperfect world. Palacio quickly and realistically sets up the tense situation in which Auggie lands. Some students can be very cruel on purpose; others are unintentionally so. But amid all the ugliness, a few individuals show kindness, even when it costs them friends.
Auggie’s prep school odyssey is told from four different perspectives: his own, that of his sister, Via; and those of his new friends Summer and Jack Will.
There are a few important themes to note in Palacio’s story. The first one has to do with persistence and bravery. Although Auggie legitimately feels as though he is a “lamb” being led to “slaughter,” he stays the course and, besides a few “sick” days due to stunning rejection by a so-called friend, he courageously stays the whole year. Another one deals with friendship. Auggie doesn’t go it alone, even though he sometimes feels that way. And the story helps readers see Auggie’s humanity through the eyes of his two friends.
The book has a strong pro-life message, starting at the very beginning. Immediately after delivery, the nurse whispers into Auggie’s mother’s ear, “Everyone born of God overcometh the world.”
But is the story presenting a Christian understanding of the Triune God, or a pantheistic idea of who God is? This is an important question that’s worth keeping in mind as one reads the story. These are the kinds of ideas that are being discussed by kids and in classrooms everywhere.
There is an irritating shortcoming to “Wonder” as well. In my opinion, Palacio should have stopped writing one chapter before he did. In the end, it felt as if the story was tied up like a neat and pretty package. Real life is messier.
Image copyright Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Kim Moreland is the managing editor for the Colson Center, manages the Colson Center Library, is a research associate for BreakPoint, and writes feature articles and blog posts for BreakPoint.