Thursday, December 12, 2013
Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
August Pullman is 10 years old and severely, profoundly deformed in the face. Otherwise he's perfectly normal...he can do everything normal kids can do (skateboard, hike, play video games, etc.) and he's got above average intelligence. Told primarily through August's POV, with a few chapters in the POV of his close friends or family members, the book recounts August's experience in the fifth grade, which is the first year he goes to real school (he was home schooled previously). Not a whole lot actually happens in the book; it's more about the minor, day-to-day slings and arrows we all experience and how the various characters cope with them and gradually grow as people. Kind of like Anne of Green Gables!
I thought the author nailed the setting of a fifth grade classroom. In August's school, fifth grade is the first year of middle school. When I was growing up, fifth grade was still considered elementary school, but it was definitely a transitional year when kids suddenly started "going out" with each other, popularity became a Thing, and everything just became super awkward and hard. Suddenly it mattered what clothes you wore, who your friends were, what stuff you were into, etc., in a way that it never had before. Honestly, it was friggin horrible, and there was no turning back after that year.
Fifth grade was an especially terrible year for me, and I didn't even have half the problems August has! I think 10-11 year olds might be some of the cruelest people on earth. They kind of embody the worst qualities of both children and adults: like adults, they have the intelligence to know if something is "cool" or not, to really know how to say the most cutting thing possible to hurt a person; yet, like children, they lack the maturity to filter themselves. Bad, bad combination, especially if you're the ugliest person on the planet, as August seems to be. A natural target.
Anyways, at times when I was reading this, especially the chapters told through August's POV, I would forget he was deformed. He deals with things like growing apart from his childhood best friend, over-hearing the person he thought was his new friend talking smack about him to a more popular kid in the effort to appear cool, etc. These are things every kid has to deal with, and I kind of think that was the point of the book and what made it all so relatable. To the outside world, August is perceived as a freak, as different. But in his own head, he's just a normal kid.
I liked that all the characters were presented in shades of gray (with the exception of Julian, the bully, and Mr. Tushman, the Dumbledore-like, benevolent principal), as opposed to being solely good or bad. Even August behaves like a petulant little brat sometimes, and I think it's important to see him that way...if he'd been presented as 100% angelic the book would have been insufferable. Would have read like an Aesop's fable or something.
I am giving this 4.5 stars. Why not 5? I don't know...I really liked it, loved it even, and felt uplifted the whole time I was reading it, but I don't know. When I think of a similarly moving/heart wrenching book, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors comes to mind, and I just felt like that book was on a slightly higher level somehow. I can't quite pin it down. But there was a certain preachiness to this one, especially towards the end when Tushman gave his lengthy speech about kindness, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Still, it was excellent, and I highly recommend it!