Aiming on the younger end of the Middle Grade spectrum, Wonder is the story of a disfigured 5th grader named August, and his transition from homeschooling into the public school system.
On the surface, it may seem like just another learning-to-accept-differences theme. But the book has far more than that to offer. Yes, August’s life is the focalpoint, but we are also given the first-person perspectives of numerous other young people whose lives are impacted by Auggie and his struggles. Additional viewpoints include Auggie’s loving older sister Via—who often feels neglected by their parents, but tries not to resent their worry over her brother; His sister’s ex-best friend Miranda, who has always adored August and his family, but has lost herself in the new high school social strata; Summer, the first kid in Auggie’s grade to willingly sit by him at lunch in spite of social pressures; and Jack, a boy in Auggie’s class who was assigned to be a sort of good will ambassador for him, but who succumbs to the whims of a socially devious bully.
The prose is very simple, but appropriate to the target audience. The problems presented aren’t as simple, and neither are character motivations. All of our viewpoint characters are flawed—even Auggie, whose inward focus and past disappointment sometimes leaves him misjudging people’s intentions. And while Auggie and Via’s parents are wonderfully functional and deeply caring people, even they are perfectly imperfect—at odds with each other’s judgement of what’s best for Auggie and miscalculating how well their older daughter is coping with her own transition.
After about the halfway point the pacing started to feel a bit drawn-out, but the rapid shifting of viewpoints remedied some of this.
What really made this book for me was the realistic air of the ringleader antagonist, Julian. Julian is the kind of bully who never gets caught, because overt violence isn’t his tool of choice. Sporting sociopathic traits (and overindulgent parents who encourage and defend said traits), Julian flexes his power behind the social scenes—manipulating all weaker personalities around him into doing his bidding, isolating and intimidating any who resist. He makes Auggie’s life miserable through strategic use of rumors, anonymous notes, and social vendettas. (Anyone who thinks this sounds too clever and complicated a feat for a MG villain didn’t go to my middle school. Just be grateful you missed out on that particular joy. >.>)
Note: On a personal level, I have to admit I can’t be completely objective in my experience with this book. I selected it for two reasons. One, so that my own grade school children could be exposed to a quality, empathy-building story that would put them in the shoes of someone who has to live with being stared at and singled out for maltreatment. And two, because I had a friend in early grade school who had a facial disfigurement (severe cleft pallet/speech impediment/glass eye), and I wanted to see how true-to-life Auggie’s experiences might compare to what I saw with my friend.
On both counts, I’m satisfied with this book.
My 9-year-old son connected with Auggie on every level, and I loved the conversations this opened up between us. And while Auggie’s experiences realistically portray just how terrible kids can treat each other, his is ultimately a tale of hope, growth, and triumph. (Sadly, I didn’t see the same results for my elementary school friend. I wish this book had existed when we were still children.)
I do wish there’d been a bit more exploration of the medical side of Auggie’s condition. But as August has reached a stable point after a myriad of corrective surgeries, it’s understandable this wouldn’t really come into play for this book.