August Pullman is a 5th grader entering the prestigious Beecher Prep against his will; he would rather continue to homeschool with his mother. After all, he was born with a severe facial deformity and he is hesitant – to put it mildly – about facing his peers on a regular basis. This is the story of Auggie’s 5th grade year. It’s the story of his classmates learning to look beyond Auggie’s face. And its the story of Auggie learning to live beyond his face.
I came upon the book “Wonder” when a friend of mine asked if I had read it? She had heard it was great modern fiction for middle schoolers. What’s more, she had heard the book was Catholic to its core. Wow! Minutes later it was zipped down to my iPad via the magic of the internets and Overdrive.
At the first glow of the screen, I was put off and almost put the book down. The sentences were short, choppy, colloquial and dumbed down. Reader, I don’t have a problem with writing in a familiar fashion to the audience (I often use the style myself!), but having the character speak in a familiar and comfortable fashion with the reader is entirely different than dumbing down the conversation. What’s more, the readability is dumbed down to age 8 (I assume as this is the publisher’s recommended reading age) and the content is most certainly not anything I would allow my own 8 year old to read. The content is acceptable to older kids, whom I believe are really the target audience. Sigh. I wish today’s authors would give their young readers more credit. Still, I pressed on. And I can say that I’m glad I did. I’m not sure if the writing evolves as the novel moves forward, or if I became accustomed to reading the language, but the process of reading the book proved to grow more enjoyable as the story moved forward.
When we first meet August, he tells us immediately that he is not “normal” and that he has a facial deformity. But he refuses to provide any more information. Perhaps he is afraid we will run off. Its sometime later that we finally realize through (thankfully) vague genetic explanations the extent of his deformity. And it is severe. Still, it is hard to feel too sorry for Auggie as he passes through his first days at Beecher Prep. His body language wards off not only those who would mock him and hurt him, but those who would love him as well. We, like the people he meets at school, learn to like him. And I think he learns to trust us. This is not only true for us, but for the other characters in the book as well. We are reading the story as it progresses through the eyes, experiences, and point of view of the various characters of the novel. Each one is real. Each one is believable. Palacio does a tremendous job here.
Nonetheless, the story contains some troubling aspects. While I can generally tolerate small amounts of “potty humor,” this book goes over the top in some descriptions. The flashback of Auggie’s birth with the accompanying descriptions of the “boogie” doctor and farting nurse are just too much. Also too much? The boy who would squirt kids with slug juice mixed with dog pee. And yes, I see that humor can be used to diffuse situations. But can we expand? Just a little?
But even if we were to ignore the potty humor – and its hard – we must face the very pointed anti-God/pro-vague feel good New Agey sentiment that is a major point of this book. We see it in Mr. Browne’s precepts wherein he attempts to define first what a precept is and then gathers examples of “really important things” to be guided by them. His list includes an enthusiastic “environment, world, recycling” but a less enthusiastic “God.” And when Auggie’s Grandmother dies and Auggie wonders if she goes to heaven? The very wise friend Summer provides the defacto explanation: souls go to heaven to “catch up on old times” and then get born again as brand new babies, a chance to have a “do over.” “I like that,” Auggie agrees. The parents don’t believe in a God either. Indeed, when Mr. Tushman, the school principal, ends his farewell speech with “…someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God…or whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in…” the parents erupt in applause at the second part. Yes. They erupt in applause, not at the principal urging everyone to “be kind” but his correction on his assertion of “God”. Thus, while God is continually questioned in the book, there is never a definitive answer provided. The target age of this book is still too young to be left answer-less.
It is worth noting that the author mentions on her website that she wrote this book as “a celebration of kindness.” It wasn’t in my borrowed-from-the-library-downloaded-epub version of the book, but I guess readers are somehow encouraged to tweet examples of how they have been kind using the hashtag #bekind.
R. J. Palacio’s Wonder is a book that makes you sigh with contentment when you put it down. Indeed, the last few sentences stand as one of the most beautiful pro-life messages I’ve read in a long time. To that end, it’s Catholic. But reader beware: the in between parts do contain New Age gobbly gook that, at the very least, deserve some discussion with your young reader.
What You Need to Know
- Role Models/Authority Figures – Auggie’s parents are married and exercise due authority as parents. Other parents of other parents are divorced, including Miranda’s (Olivia’s friend) who separated because of infidelity.
- Violence – A troubling incident when Olivia’s boyfriend, Justin, pretends that his violin – in a metal case tucked under his arm – is a machine gun. He then proceeds to threaten some bullies with the pretend weapon. The bullies don’t know the metal case is really a gun. Justin is never chastised for doing this. It is presented as an acceptable means to stop bullying.
- Sexual Content – Auggie’s sister has a boyfriend. Thankfully, any sordid details are left out. Miranda is said to sneak out camp to see boys. Popular kids in Beecher Prep 5th grade have boyfriends/girlfriends.
- Language – potty humor: farting nurse, principle’s name is “Mr. Tushman” emphasized beat to death in the book,
- Consumerism – Many references to modern and popular culture/entertainment including: Dragon Rider book series, lyrics by Christina Aguilera, Star Wars (all episodes), Jimmy Neutron, Wrinkle in Time, Shen of the Sea, Diary of a Wimpy Kid (specifically, the Cheese Touch), Freddy Krueger and ET (both names Auggie’s been called), lyrics from Daivd Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Major Tom, Avatar, Playstation and Wii and XBox (either Auggie has all three, or continuity issue within the story) on which he plays “Halo”, movie “The Mummy”, Dungeons and Dragons (specific crowd at school), iMac (Auggie has in his room), “Our Town”, Andain’s “Beautiful Things” lyrics.
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Miranda went through a bad “phase” at camp and smoked
- Religion – I John 5:4 “Everyone born of God overcometh the world” is whispered to Auggie’s mom, by the nurse, at his birth. Implication that just being born is “born of God” and a foreshadowing of Auggie’s eventual ability to “overcome” others initial opinions of him and be liked “the world”. In Mr. Browne’s precepts, “God” is not the most important thing of all, but “who we are” is. Suggested throughout the book that God is just one possibility of many acceptable religions. One long discussion on the myth of heaven and the more real possibility of reincarnation. Reincarnation is presented as a more reasonable alternative as it gives Auggie another pass at – a presumably better – life. God or whatever “politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in”
- Other – a very moving pro-life comment by Auggie’s mother. Author’s website makes the suggestion to tweet “#bekind” examples. Author’s website also contains “annotations” but does not provide an exhaustive list.