R.J. Palacio’s popular novel tells the story of a kid who finds acceptance
Thanks to the 2017 movie starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay, the book Wonder is a pop-cultural phenomenon, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should definitely add it to your family’s must-buy list.
A cross-over hit, this novel is appealing to young readers as well as adults and could be shared among strong readers over the age of 7 or 8.
I was lucky enough to interview Jacob Tremblay late last year in advance of the movie release. I’m sure the movie is okay, but at my house, we have a rule: “No movie til we’ve read the book! I gobbled it up on my own while my son was busy with another book, but we’re now reading it together.
Message of empathy
Auggie Pullman is a 10-year-old who was born with a genetic differences that make his face look different, even after 27 surgeries. He’s been home-schooled for most of his early life, but when Wonder opens, we learn he is about to start attending Grade 5 at a regular school.
The first chapters are painful and awkward, just as Auggie’s first days at school are. He meets some nice kids, some not so nice kids, finds a place to eat lunch in relative peace, and does his best to keep his protective parents from freaking out.
Things aren’t easy for Auggie, but by the end of the novel, he has shown that he has the strength to deal with adversity. The reader can relax, not because the threat of mean people has gone away, but because we know Auggie, with a little help from his friends, can handle it.
In the end, Auggie finds true friendship, learns how to be a good friend himself, and is recognized for his kind-heartedness. Tears streamed down my face as I read the final pages.
I actively look for kids books that will evoke an emotional response in my 8-year-old because I’m convinced emotional intelligence starts with stories.
The ending of Wonder has what it takes to evoke feelings in young readers: love for Auggie, relief that Auggie has found acceptance, and faith that people are generally kind — even if they sometimes make mistakes.
Appealing for all ages
Wonder is appropriate for a Grade 4, 5, or 6 student to read alone, thanks to short chapters, simple sentences and fast-moving dialogue.
It’s told in a first-person point of view, but the point of view shifts from one character to another throughout the book. Palacio gives voice to a wide variety of characters, including Auggie’s older sister Via, his friend Jack, and even his mother.
The result is a surprisingly nuanced message and a book that is satisfying for adults as well as kids.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2013, this book had a slow start in bookstores, but after adults discovered it, it became a massive hit. A special edition of the book featured fan letters from grown men who cried at the end, and even a 93-year-old who was reminded of how difficult it can be in middle school to find a safe place to eat your lunch.
The thing is, this book isn’t really about a kid with facial differences. It’s about how everyone is a little bit different, and everyone must face the challenge of staying to true to oneself despite social pressure to fit in.
Auggie’s friend Jack lives in poverty. His other friend Sunny lost her father at a young age. Auggie’s older sister Liv struggles with how her new high school friends might perceive her brother. Liv’s boyfriend Justin has brain differences.
Full of laughs and visual fun
It’s obvious why this book was made into a movie. Palacio’s scenes of middle school are highly visual. There’s Halloween day at school, a showdown with the bullies, a school play, and an awards ceremony.
That dramatic, visual quality is also what makes Wonder a great book. The contemporary world of the young person comes to vibrant life on the page, and it’s so delightful to feel each new character’s inner world unfold as the point of view shifts from person to person.
The snappy dialogue and pop cultural references give this book a sense of humour that make it genuinely interesting to kids. It doesn’t read like a sincere morality tale chosen by adults, but rather, a story about relatable, imperfect characters.
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