August Pullman was born with severe facial deformities. By the time he is ten, he has been through countless surgeries, everything from changing the structure of his jaw so he can eat to implanting a piece of his hip bone to create his chin. He has been homeschooled his whole life, but when he reaches fifth grade, his parents think it might be a good time for him to adjust to the real world. (And I'm thinking, Really? Because middle school is so accommodating with its students all going through puberty, identity crises, and social insecurities?) Auggie agrees to try it, with the understanding that he can quit at any time. The book follows him through all of fifth grade, told from not only his own perspective but that of his sister, two of her friends, and two of his friends.
Overall, I loved the changing points of view. When the story is told through the eyes of six different people, you always run the risk of it either sounding like all the same person or losing its continuity. And to be perfectly honest, the voices did all run together to a certain extent (but then, they were all middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, so you know, if the voices had been too different, it wouldn't have been authentic). In some cases, I felt like Palacio was purposely changing something just so it would be different and distinct. For example, when it is Justin's turn (he's August's sister's boyfriend), all capital letters and quotation marks are dropped. This felt like kind of a cheap shot to me...like Palacio couldn't figure out how to make him sound different so just made his section look different instead.
That said, I'm still really glad the story was told by six different people. It broadened the story and made the whole thing feel more well-rounded and complete. If it had just been told from Auggie's perspective, it would have still been good and enlightening, but I think sometimes when talking about handicaps, we forget that everyone is affected by it, even random strangers in a small way. As a reader, I thought it was so thought-provoking to hear not only Auggie's thoughts (how he perceives and is hurt by people's reactions and behaviors) but also his sister, Via's (who for once just wants to be identified for who she is herself and not that she has a brother with a deformed face) and also his best friend, Jack's (who likes being Auggie's friend but sometimes cracks under the social pressure).
This book made me reflect on my own behavior towards those with physical handicaps. I'm always worried about hurting or offending someone, and so I know I've been the kind of person described by Auggie who immediately looks away and avoids eye contact with someone who is handicapped. I don't want to stare and so I go to the other extreme, which is just as glaring and noticeable. August's story not only helped me recognize my own actions but identify some ways to change them. For that reason, I think this is one of those books that will stay with me and that I will re-read at some future point.
One of the things that I really appreciated about this particular story was that August's handicap was only physical, not mental in any way. So often I think we assume that physical and mental handicaps go together, but that is not always the case. One of my favorite scenes was when August's friend, Jack, asked him, "Are you always going to look this way, August? I mean, can't you get plastic surgery or something?" August smiled, pointed to his face and said, "Hello? This is after plastic surgery!" Jack started laughing and said, "Dude, you should sue your doctor!" August and Jack both cracked up. I think I liked this scene so much because it showed the kind of friendship that is possible when pretenses are dropped and insecurities are left behind. You can only joke like that when you truly know the other person.
There were also some really good one-liners that made me think. For example, the first time Jack saw August was when they were little boys. He was caught so off-guard by August's face that he and his brother and his babysitter immediately walked away. His babysitter realized how this had looked to August and his mom and sister. She felt so bad about it. Jack was confused because they hadn't done anything intentionally mean, and his babysitter answered, "Jack, sometimes you don't have to mean to hurt someone to hurt someone. You understand?" So, so true.
I felt like Palacio took a very sensitive subject and handled it in a beautiful way. So often, it seems like stories like these are emotionally draining, but this one was uplifting and hopeful in every way. It wasn't like Auggie didn't have struggles in school: some kids were mean to him in awful ways. But he had a great home life with really supportive and loving parents, he made a couple of friends who after a time stuck up for him in big ways, and August's confidence steadily grew throughout the book. I loved the positive undertone throughout.
As an adult, I am curious if this is a book kids would like. Where it was hard for me to put down, I'm not sure it would hold their interest. However, even if it's not an exciting story per se, I think it would be such a good book for middle schoolers to read; so much of it could be applied to real life.
When I started reading this book, I was in the midst of reading another book (The Shoemaker's Wife), which was due at the library. Because I hate library fines, I returned it but put it on hold at our other library so I could keep reading. There was only a day or so without it, so I just thought I would start Wonder while I waited for the other copy of The Shoemaker's Wife to come in. But once I started, I couldn't stop. August's story captured my interest completely, and I had to see it through without going back to the other book first.
I would actually love to see this win the Newbery. It was published in early 2012, so it has probably gotten too much attention for its own good, but even if it doesn't win anything, it is a story worth reading once...and then again.
P.S. Just in case I didn't convince you to read this, check out the trailer. I think it really captures the general feel of the book.