“Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” (299)
Just the other day, we were talking at work about the hardest times for kids as they grow up. I said, unequivocally, that middle school was the worst for me. I didn’t have a particularly bad time of it, but I think there was a reason I had a spate of migraines during middle school. Middle school kids have an astounding capacity for cruelty. August Pullman, the main character of Wonder (2012) by R.J. Palacio, not only faces the gauntlet of fifth grade after years of homeschooling, but he does it as someone who is unable to simply blend in with the crowd.
“I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.” (73) August Pullman suffers from a genetic condition called mandibulofacial dysostosis, or Treacher Collins Syndrome. It’s caused a lifetime of difficult health problems and painful surgeries as well as pretty severe facial deformities. The book begins with August Pullman about to start the gauntlet of fifth grade after being home-schooled.
Auggie has a good support system at home with his parents and older sister, Via, but there’s only so much they can protect him from. The other kids, for the most part, refrain from outright namecalling, but he is isolated and ostracized. The few people he manages to befriend are put under significant peer pressure to break off ties with “the freak.”
August Pullman is an inspiring character. He’s had to go through so much in his short life, and then he has to face a bunch of asshole fifth graders. And he keeps coming back. He has a remarkably positive outlook on life that stems directly from the love of his family. The book leaves you feeling good. “[S]o doesn’t that make the universe a giant lottery, then? you purchase a ticket when you’re born. and it’s all just random whether you get a good ticket or a bad ticket. it’s all just luck…maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds.” (204) I wish the universe did take care of all its birds. I guess I’ve seen too much to truly believe it, but the schoolchildren reading Wonder don’t need my jaded outlook quite yet.
I was impressed with Palacio’s storytelling. It is undoubtedly written for a younger audience, but I was never bored. She tells the story from shifting points of view, beginning and ending with August, but also showing his sister, and other characters. I think it’s a remarkable work for creating empathy and understanding. Not only do we learn about August Pullman’s struggles and live through his eyes for a year in school, but we also get to see inside other characters’ heads. When the reader might think Via or August’s friend is being mean or unreasonable, we get to see what’s going on in their lives and where they are coming from.
I’ve heard that schools are reading the book and going to see the movie. I hope it affects them as strongly as it affected me and makes some kids really choose kindness first.
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