Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Genre: Realistic fiction

A 2013 ALA Notable Children’s Book (Middle Readers)

I was excited to read this book as it has gotten so much praise and good buzz, and I had it highly recommended by several trusted sources (thanks Michaela and Christina!) It did not disappoint.

Wonder is the story of Augustus, a fifth grader who enters school for the first time. Auggie was born with a severe facial deformity and has previously been home schooled due to ongoing medical issues. The story is told from several different points of view as Auggie completes his first year of school and covers the challenges and triumphs he encounters. Auggie’s story is one of friendship, loyalty, bullying, honesty, compassion, kindness, and courage in so many forms. I cried at the beginning, middle and end. I highly recommend it, for both adults and students – it would probably appeal most to students in grades 5-8. It is a bit long so would be best suited to strong readers in grades 5 and 6. This is also the first book I’ve reviewed that I believe would make an excellent addition to your curriculum as a major novel. It abounds with teachable moments and themes. It was one of the first books I reviewed that made me want to seek out more information about the author’s inspiration. I was also curious as to why it had been passed over by the Newbery committee, and found several theories, including peaking too early in the season and the ending being too “Hollywood.” *(Scroll all the way to the bottom for my take on the ending, including spoilers).  I absolutely love the character of Auggie, how he manages to be about so much more than his face. He has a personality so far and above his appearance, and I love how richly he is drawn. It’s so authentic. It shows readers that people are so much more than their identifying characteristics – they are people, first and foremost. As Auggie reminds us, he’s just a normal kid. And I’m amazed that Palacio was able to speak with such an authentic voice when she herself has never, to my knowledge, gone through what Auggie goes through – the staring, the rudeness, the forced politeness, etc. AND the point of view of his sister, whose is love for her brother and need to fit in and guilt and understanding and neediness all rolled into one. AND several more characters to boot. It’s quite a feat.

The book also got me thinking, a lot, about a few things. I started off the book wanting to be cynical. I know kids. I know middle schoolers. I know how cruel they are, and I remember from my own experience the power of the desire to fit in. The desire to not be the one people are looking at or talking about or avoiding in any way at all. To blend in seamlessly. I still remember the strength of those feelings. I know I would NOT have been Summer, who voluntarily sits at Auggie’s lunch table, or Jack, who befriends him. I didn’t have that kind of courage, and I was cynical about how many kids actually do. But the more I read, the more I remembered kids I have taught in just five brief years. Memories came back to me of the girl – not popular, not unpopular, just a girl – who went out of her way to offer to work with an oddball kid who was struggling. Or the way my very first class of 7th graders elected a special-needs student as their class president for two years running, because they knew it would mean more to him than it would to any of them, and the vice president could always pick up the slack. There are kids like that, and I have seen them, and I thank the author for reminding me of that. If anything, I ended up being far more cynical of the adult in the book, the administrator Mr. Tushman. He’s a wonderful character who shows an almost perfect level of understanding and compassion and character. But I have yet to find, in my experience as a student or a teacher, an administrator like him, who is willing to put aside the bottom line and public opinion and let humanity rise to the top. I know that often they don’t have that luxury, but it’s funny that I ended the book with more faith in middle schoolers than in their administrators.

My other thoughts – and here’s where I digress – are on how differently I think I would have reacted to this book before I became a parent. I know I’m probably going to lose some of my audience here. I know how sanctimonious parents can sound when they say, “You don’t understand until you have a child.” But I’m not saying it to be sanctimonious, I’m saying it because it’s true. I don’t mean that I know how to love better or love more, or that the secrets of the universe have been opened to me. I just mean that there are certain biological changes in your brain and body chemistry once you have carried and borne a child (and I have to believe there is an equivalent for those who become parents in other ways as well). Until you have felt the rush of hormones that accompanies becoming a parent – hormones so strong you can feel them coursing through your blood and making your body shake – you don’t know what it’s feel like to know you are capable – quite literally – of killing whatever threatens your offspring. The feeling dissipates, but only a bit. That biological imperative to protect never goes away, the connection so strong that you hurt – not quite literally, but almost – when they hurt. I didn’t know this before I was a parent, and now I can never un-know it. It’s the difference between sympathy – I can only imagine what you’re feeling – and empathy – I know how you feel. I can only sympathize with Auggie, and I can only sympathize with his parents, but I can empathize with their need to protect him. The description of Auggie’s birth broke my heart. I read the book wondering at each step how I might feel if he were my child. It was a completely different reading experience than I would have had before my daughter was born. And I understand completely why none of the chapters is told from the point of view of either of his parents – as the author says, “…it would have changed the focus of the book from child-driven to something else, something darker…” As an adult reader, you are also acutely aware of all the further struggles in Auggie’s life. He has left the bubble of his home, but what about when he leaves the bubble of middle school? What about when his hormones hit and puberty begins and he falls in love? These thoughts were nagging at me in a way they might not nag at, say, a sixth grade reader.

Teaching resources:

Author’s Website: http://rjpalacio.com/ (Check out the great F.A.Q. section)

Choose Kind, the campaign inspired by the book: http://choosekind.tumblr.com/

Conversation with R.J. Palacio about Choose Kind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4psz–ziXB4

A good website with resources about Treacher Collins Syndrome, one of the influences for Auggie’s condition (not for the faint of heart. Use discretion with students): http://www.treachercollins.org/tcs/Welcome.html

The internet is rife with lesson plans for this book. Here are just a few:

http://www.helpreaderslovereading.com/2012/03/wonder-by-r-j-palacio.html

http://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tid=29378&a=1

http://wildaboutfifthgrade.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-guest-blogging-we-will-go-wonderful.html

http://www.losethechalk.com/2013/05/the-wonder-of-wonder-great-lesson-ideas.html

From the publisher: http://www.randomhouse.com/teachers/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Wonder_EG_WEB.pdf

 

1.Often in works of literature, a character encounters a situation that requires courage. Select a character from Wonder who encounters a situation that requires courage. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character reacts to the situation that requires courage, and explain how the character’s actions are important to the work as a whole.

2. Often in works of literature, a character develops a friendship with or feelings of love for someone who is disapproved of by others. Select a character from Wonder who develops a friendship with or feelings of love for someone who is disapproved of by others. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe the character’s relationship, and explain how the relationship relates to the work as a whole.

3. Often in works of literature, something positive can emerge from a difficult situation. In a well-developed composition, describe a situation from Wonder and explain how something positive emerges from it.

* SPOILER ALERT I actually thought maybe Jack was going to win the award. True, Auggie showed incredibly courage, but Jack showed the kindness, the power of friendship, and the character Mr. Tushman talks about. In a way, Auggie doesn’t have a choice – but Jack actively chooses to be kind and to be friend, after having gone through a struggle with it. That to me is more of a testament to character.

Please leave questions, comments, book review requests, etc. below!

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  1. Pingback: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate | Peggy Power!

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