That’s the take home from R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder,” an engaging read for kids fourth grade and older and adults too, making this novel ideal for families to read together.
Main character August Pullman was born with a combination of syndromes, including a type of mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic mutation that affects how his face formed. According to the story, there’s a one in four million chance any baby would be born with this condition, and August declines to describe his own face because “whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
The story covers his first year in public school, and he’s off to fifth grade at Beecher Prep, a New York middle school. He’s nervous and for good reason; he’s familiar with being called “freak,” “mutant,” “monster” and “orc.”
But on the first day a girl names Summer sits by him at lunch and finds out he’s funny, so she keeps coming back day after day. Jack, a boy the administrators asked to befriend August, does so out of obligation at first but eventually realizes August is more than a challenge to be met; he’s a boy, just like Jack. He’s funny and smart, and in spite of appearances he’s the friend Jack chooses in the end.
Not everyone is so kind, some by accident as they react involuntarily to seeing August’s face and some because they choose to be mean.
As far as readability goes, there couldn’t be a more leisurely novel to work through. The novel is just 310 pages long, but it can easily be read in a week’s worth of afternoons. Most chapters are two to five pages long, and the book is chunked into sections with different characters telling their own first-person account of the story.
That’s another endearing part of the story: Readers get to hear from several characters and become sympathetic to them. For instance, one section told by August’s sister Via examines the conflict between fiercely loving and defending her brother and desperately wanting more attention from her parents and less negative attention from others because of August. It’s an interesting perspective from a family member who’s life is impacted for good and bad by a loved one’s struggle.
Maybe the best way to read “Wonder” would be as a parent with your kids because the story has lots of anecdotes perfect for conversation starters. For instance, the antagonist, Julian, knows just what to say to get on the good side with teachers and other adults, but around peers he is arrogant and condescending, and with August he’s downright cruel. His character isn’t likeable and provides the ideal opportunity to talk about authenticity and what real popularity is.
In the end, most fellow students are rooting for August, even though they don’t want to be open about it — and it’s another chance to ask your kids what kind of friend they are: one who is unashamed to be inclusive and accepting of others, or one who cares more about the crowd than being kind.
Reading this book as a family or at the same time as one another can be a good way to open the discussion about how we treat people who are different than us — appearance wise and otherwise. Because as Palacio preaches, “Your deeds are your monuments,” and little can be as monumental in people’s lives as the genuine care of others.