They say if you want to win an Oscar you need to play somebody with an extreme personal difficulty (terminal illness, disease, etc.). They do not, for the record, say that about award winning children’s books. There isn’t this general understanding that if you want a shiny Newbery Medal on your cover then you need to give your main character autism or a cleft palate or any of that. People write such books but if I were to make a very rough estimate I’d say that a good 90% of them were awful. Why say such a thing? Because when you have a child character facing life with a significant problem on their plate it’s hard to present your story in such a way where the audience isn’t just another gawker. You need windows and mirrors. To look into a person’s mind and see someone like yourself (mirror) but to also look through your own eyes and see someone who has experiences you’ll never have (window). This balancing act often topples lesser authors, leaving flawed books with grand intentions. Read enough of them and you get jaded and just automatically assume that the next one you pick up will be the same. So I picked up Wonder by R.J. Palacio with skepticism on my mind. And like its hero August Pullman, nothing about it was the same. I mean that in the best way possible.
Auggie Pullman has never had to go to school with other kids. Lucky him you say? Not so much. You see, Auggie’s a great kid. Loves his Star Wars and his Xbox and all the other stuff kids are into. He also has had more surgeries than most people go through in an entire lifetime, and he’s only in the fifth grade. Born with severe birth defects that have rendered his face very different from that of other kids he’s been homeschooled for years. Now, at long last, he has a chance to go to a small school near his home for the first time. He’s always had to deal with people treating him differently. The real question is whether or not he can get them to look beyond his face to see how he’s just the most ordinary kid you ever did know.
The writing is good in a rather direct way. Some children’s authors can load a page with lines that cause you to stop and think and ponder for days at a time. Not surprisingly, their books are fulfilling but make for slow reading. Palacio’s talent lies in pulling her audience along quickly, then spotting the story with small pinpoints of insight. A child reading the book is interested right from the start and will easily swallow smart lines like “Jack, sometimes you don’t have to be mean to hurt someone.” The book does slow down from time to time (during Justin’s section most notably, though I’ll get to that later) but overall it flows beautifully.
They say that one of the most common stories you can tell is “a stranger comes to town”. Wonder was interesting because when tales like this one are told in middle grade novels, the narrator is inevitably one of the crowd. A Nick Carraway to the hero Gatsby. Think of novels like Stargirl, Firegirl, or Larger-Than-Life Lara. In each case you’re with the crowd outside of the hero, watching. Palacio tries something a little risky with her novel. You start out in Auggie’s head at the beginning. Then, as the story progresses, she leaps into the heads of others. From Auggie to his sister Via. From Via to schoolmate Summer. Summer to Jack, Jack to Justin, Justin to Auggie again, Auggie to Miranda, Miranda back to Auggie at last. It’s interesting. I would have expected the leaps of p.o.v. to be relegated solely to the center of the book. Instead, that leap from Justin to Auggie to Miranda to Auggie is interesting. You don’t see Miranda coming, and I wondered for a moment why it was there. My thinking was that the novel needed to get into the head of a couple of its “villains”. So you get to see what Jack was thinking when he was mean and what Miranda was dealing with when dissing Via. I half expected the brain of the true bad guy of the book, Julian, to make an appearance but no such luck. Each of these moments work pretty well. Someone once asked me to name a truly great children’s book that switches its p.o.v. and though I couldn’t name one I knew it was not impossible. The only character I would take out would be Via’s boyfriend Justin. His section is perfectly nice but its sole point, insofar as I could tell, was to show why Julian eventually claims that Jack hired a hit man to threaten him. Other than that, it comes right out.
Other choices in the novel struck my fancy as well. The book begins by almost making a point of not describing Auggie’s face when you’re in Auggie’s head. He simply mentions his looks with a dismissive, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” I liked that. You actually get a pretty good approximation of Auggie’s face anyway, just due to the fact that he has to mention parts of it when describing why eating can be a problem, why his ears are difficult, etc. I was a little disappointed then when we got to Via’s section and she lays Auggie’s looks on the line. I understand why Palacio did it, of course. You sort of need to know what you’re dealing with so as to understand/condemn the kids that understand/condemn Auggie. It’s very interesting that it happens on page 88, though. If I were doing this book with a kids’ bookclub, I’d ask them why they thought the author waited so long. I bet the answers could prove eye-opening.
The story seems to take place in a little alternative New York City. There’s still an A train but there are also locations that don’t quite exist like the Berkeley Heights area of upper Manhattan. In that little manmade sphere Palacio can drop in her characters and situations, some of which I’ve never seen before. For example, I liked that Palacio showed how adults could be just as cruel and insensitive as kids (ex: Photoshopping Auggie out of the class photo and then handing out copies). I liked that Palacio made a point of showing that mean people aren’t necessarily bad people. And I was particularly fond of the ending. I had the worry that the book would try to show the community coming together for Auggie in a false way, but the reason the kids in his school start sticking up for him rang true to me. We won’t get into it, suffice to say that it’s a lot more believable than the endings I’ve read in some other books. I was admittedly a little disappointed when Julian, our resident villain, disappears from the book and, with him, all conflict goes too. Still, it’s a quibble.
I worry a little that the novel will suffer in time due to the sheer number of contemporary references that pepper its pages. Be ready for some Star Wars because Palacio delves into that world with gusto. Heck, whole plot turns depend on it. On top of that you’ll find references to Justin Bieber, The Simpsons, Diary of a Wimpy Kid (there’s an excellent explanation of “The Cheese Touch” here), Jimmy Neutron, Christina Aguilera, etc. My hope is that this will just mean that the book becomes a kind of historical document in the future, but my worry is that in the interim, say ten years from now, it’ll be considered instantly lame by the kids who find all these outdated references strange (except the Diary of a Wimpy Kid part . . . that’s forever!). I shouldn’t have been surprised to find them, of course, when from the outset it was clear that the book was based on a Natalie Merchant song (which has been playing on a loop in my brain for the past two weeks or so). And I’ll forgive a lot from a book that quotes a Magnetic Fields song at length within the text.
Heart. Which is to say, writing books with heart. It’s a talent. Some might say that the easy route is to write a book with a character like Auggie but I am of the opinion that an author actually makes their own job incredibly difficult if they follow Palacio’s path. You could end up with something saccharine or that just feels off in tone. You could wind up ironic and bitter or so sugary sweet that no child will believe in your hero. You could weigh the narrative down with “lessons” that chafe or you could eschew the lessons entirely and have a book without a moral compass or point. Palacio navigates all these tricky areas and manages to come out with a story that is not only good, not only heartfelt, not only well-written, but something you actually want to return to after you’ve put it down. She’s figured out how to write characters that feel so real you might know them yourself. So even if you don’t think this is the book for you, fear not. What we have here is a winner. One that really and truly manages to feel both enjoyable and true.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Firegirl by Tony Abbott
- Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
- Larger-Than Life Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall
Notes on the Cover: Travis Jonker recently pointed out that there’s a real plethora of baby blue, black and white covers out there right now, this one included. I have to say, it’s not a cover I’d instantly gravitate towards, but it intrigued me. It’s a very adult cover, now that I look at it. The kind of thing you’d see on a novel for hipster twenty-nine-year-olds. I like how the artist (a Tad Carpenter, by the look of it) chose to imply a face without going into detail. One quibble, the ears are utterly wrong. You could make an argument for the eye, but the ears shouldn’t be that large, or prominent, or even ear-shaped. Other than that, I’d say it’s a clever solution to a book jacket problem. My wager, if I were a betting woman, would be to say that they’ll keep this cover for the paperback edition.
Turns out there is indeed a book trailer for it. Voila!
And here the author reads a chapter: