Wonder is a transformative book. Our reviewers, Jess Lahey, author of the forthcoming The Gift of Failure and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and The Atlantic, and her son, Ben, a sophomore at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, tell us why it is a must read.
TEEN REVIEW | Ben Lahey
August Pullman, the main character of Wonder by R. J. Palacio, is only 10 years old, but his story engages readers of any age. August was born with a severe facial deformity that leaves him unable to attend school, until the fifth grade, when his family decides it’s time for him to try to give up homeschooling.
Wonder tells the story of August’s first year of school through his own eyes, as well as the eyes of four other characters. The narrators range from fifth graders to high schoolers, with different points of view that flesh out not only their individual personalities, but also how August touches the lives of those around him. Even though the story is told from different perspectives, it’s never confusing; August always remains the book’s focus and is never overshadowed by their insights and observations.
Palacio uses few details to describe August’s deformity, but those that he does use are shocking. With only our imagination to complete the picture, we are left with a shocking image in our minds. August himself says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
The characters don’t deal with August’s deformity easily. Even months after first meeting him, August’s classmates are still not used to his face. The class becomes split between August’s friends and the kids who still bully him. Every character is written convincingly, and the sides they take earn either our empathy or judgment.
And Palacio doesn’t shy away from showing how parent-teacher politics play into this “war,” as August calls it. It’s easy to hate the parents and their kids who are so uncomfortable with August that they want him removed from the school. It’s equally as easy to love those kids who befriend August.
Wonder’s emotional moments work because the reader is so fully attached to the characters. Palacio makes every moment of August’s life seem real. Even the hardships that most of us will never have to face. Wonder comes close to making us understand what the life of someone with a deformity such as August’s would be like, and that is no small feat.
ADULT REVIEW | Jess Lahey
Despite his first-sentence assertion, “I know I’m not an ordinary 10-year-old kid,” August Pullman is just that. He’s a gloriously, spectacularly, and reassuringly ordinary 10-year-old kid. Sure, this central character in the coming-of-age novel, Wonder by R. J. Palacio, may not look like most kids his age, but he sure sounds a lot like them. And this is the genius of Palacio’s storytelling.
I’ve never been a fan of shifting perspectives, mainly because the narrative style feels like a cop-out, as if the author does not possess the storytelling chops to deliver the story’s nuances through a single narrator. This is August’s story, after all, and August is the only person who understands what it’s like to face the big, bad world when all the world sees is his disfigured face. The story is rightly his to tell, from his unique perspective, in his distinctive voice.
How wrong I was.
Tweens and adolescents tend to believe that they are the sole arbiters of the truth. Palacio demonstrates this by using five characters—August, Jack, Summer, Via, and Justin—to narrate their own version of August Pullman’s fifth grade year.
While Wonder is August’s story, Via, August’s sister points out that his gravitational pull influences everyone. “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun.” August may be at the center of this book’s universe, but he’s certainly not alone. As I progressed through the orbiting accounts of August’s year, I began to understand that Palacio’s use of multiple perspectives does not separate the experiences of these children. It unites them.
To paraphrase Beecher Prep Middle School Director, Mr. Tushman, the attraction of August’s heart, and the people he carries up and holds in orbit around it, are the stars of this story. When the story came to an end, and I fully appreciated what had, at first glance, been invisible to me. I was happy to have been drawn in to Palacio’s expansive vision.