Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012, 320 pages
I want to start this review by noting that Wonder by R. J. Palacio is problematic. I acknowledge that and I’ll get into it, but before I do, you need some context. Wonder begins with Auggie, a ten-year-old born with a severe facial deformity. When he agrees to attend school with the encouragement of his family (who had, up until this point, home-schooled him), Auggie encounters the cruelties of the world in the form of bullying (harassment, really) and misunderstanding. The book turns its point of view over to various people in Auggie’s life, giving them each the opportunity not only to talk about themselves but also their relationship to Auggie and the effect Auggie and his deformity have on their lives.
I think, already, you can see some of the issues with this book. Palacio admits in supplemental material in the edition I read that she does not have a facial deformity. In fact, the inspiration for Wonder came from her own humiliation at seeing a child in a park with a deformity and how she responded. You can read about that on her website. The moral of Wonder is kindness. And, obvious spoiler: Auggie overcomes his bullies
through kindness and the like and is essentially given an award for being a decent human being while others were not so decent to him (massive understatement). In many ways, Wonder is inspiration porn (learn more about that here). Like many of the other problematic material I’ve discussed on this blog, I’m not in a position to comment a whole lot here as I am able-bodied. (Additionally, if you are a member of this community and I’ve used outdated or offensive terms or have otherwise not spoken well here, please do let me know so I can fix it!)
What I can comment on is the book as a book and its merits and shortcomings as a piece of literature. So let’s move to that with the previous paragraph in mind (and work toward better representation in all art forms — one more aside, this kind of art is out there. It’s largely a matter of publication companies being willing or unwilling to, y’know, publish it. The way to show them we want this material is to buy it. So do that. Or check it out from your library. That’s important, too.)
Although I’d heard the hype about Wonder prior to reading it, I was not aware that it was told from multiple points of view. In fact, I didn’t know until I turned to the last page of Auggie’s first section in the book to find a new narrator. I admire Palacio’s commitment to creating distinct voices for each of the narrators in the book, but ultimately found there were too many narrators and certainly not enough narrators with sufficient consequence to warrant their appearance as a narrator. Palacio’s use of different narrators does provide a unique and, at some points, powerful move toward demonstrating empathy, but this achievement is overshadowed by the simple overwhelm of points of view.
The multiple-narrator strategy is only one thing that makes this book challenging. Though marketed toward older children (Amazon recommends ages 8 through 12), the book avoids overly simplistic vocabulary and sentence structure. This is where, I think, the book gets a lot of its appeal for adults. Palacio never talks down to her readers, but instead uses dialogue and monologue in such a way that is realistic, which helps to heighten the real-life importance of the overall message of kindness. This realism has the drawback of slowing the book down. Readers must be invested in the characters (perhaps, in part, hence the many narrators) if they want to be at all invested in the book. Indeed, Wonder is much more literary fiction for children than it is your average plot-driven work due to the focus on its characters and their development.
The movie for Wonder is scheduled to come out in 2017. I have my reservations due to what I’ve discussed above (in addition to casting an actor without a facial deformity as Auggie and certainly, I’m sure, other things as we get closer to the release will reveal), but with Daveed Diggs playing English teacher Mr. Browne, I might have to give it a try when it appears on Netflix.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤