Winner of the BookBrowse 2012 Best Book for Younger Readers Award
I am sitting in my local bakery right now and there is a young man here. He is different from me. He looks different and sounds different. And I find myself wanting to gaze over at him while, at the same time, wanting to avert my eyes. Not because I am afraid, nor because I am repelled, but because I don't know how to respond... The way I feel is complicated.
R.J. Palacio's debut novel, Wonder, examines these kinds of complex emotions in a way that is strikingly simple. I don't mean that it is an easy book. It is not. And I don't mean that its structure is plain or undemanding. It is neither. Palacio has created a story that spans the 5th grade year in the life of Auggie Pullman. Of course Auggie's life is anything but simple. He has undergone 27 surgeries on his face and still won't describe what he looks like. As he says, "Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." Plus he has been home-schooled his whole life, and this is the year he finally goes outside of his apartment and into an actual school.
But still - the story is a simple one. Auggie comes from an ordinary family. He lives with both his mother and his father - two funny, compassionate, loving, concerned parents. He has one teenaged sister who is struggling to figure out who she is and how to relate to her family. Auggie has a good friend. He makes a few more. He becomes the target of a few bullies. The school year follows a typical rhythm, full of holidays and class projects and field trips. Simple stuff. Unassuming stuff. And it is precisely because Wonder is so simple and unassuming that its truth is able to permeate every single page. There is a unique intimacy that Palacio has created with this book, so much so that it is as though she has eliminated the ink and paper (or text and screen) and has offered, instead, a living, breathing experience that unfolds between the reader and the story. The emotions are raw and pure. The actions are clear and vibrant. This is particularly true for Auggie; he is a visual shock to everyone who meets him, and is thus a shock to the reader's imagination as well. Because Palacio is immensely skillful at paring down her words to their essential intentions, and because she does not waste space or time with extra description or metaphor or her own opinion, the heart of Wonder pounds loud and clear.
This is also why R.J. Palacio's choice to write from multiple perspectives works so beautifully. Each voice is distinctive. Moving from one person's shoes to another is an effortless process. And so the reader is able to understand each character's thoughts and feelings and, more importantly, to believe them. The lines between us and them dissolve. The reader can imagine being Auggie's friend, or his sister, or his sister's boyfriend. The reader can imagine being Auggie.
Wonder rings its bell, and the note that reverberates in the air slips effortlessly into the reader's body. It hangs there, and the reader can't help but be changed. It is a meditation of a novel. A story that asks the reader to feel her way into kindness, empathy, and openness. And without a doubt, the reader, upon experiencing it, responds with a deep, resounding yes. Wonder is recommended for middle grade and young adult readers. It is a perfect book to open up discussions between students or book club members.
This review is from the June 14, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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