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Book Review

Ever wonder what milk and toast tastes like?

by R.J. Palacio

Contains: Sexual Themes
Recommended age: 12+

“Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way” (3). R.J. Palacio’s hero August Pullman begins the first-person (though cycling through six characters) narrative of the New York Times bestseller Wonder with a solipsist’s complaint, and punctuates the end of this first chapter by assuring us that we could not possibly imagine how bad his face looks. Auggie has a combination of problems, together with a “mysterious syndrome that makes his condition a medical wonder” (as Palacio puts it in an FAQ on her official website).

The book is beautiful and intriguing to behold, dominated by a twitter-blue background, and the theme does not stop at appearances: chapters are on average slightly less than two pages, none so few as 140 characters (although a couple come close), and none too long for the impatient reader, looking at a full spread of margin-filling words, to be able to peek around the page to find the end.

I picked up Wonder because it was popular (wide-release film slated for 2017—I predict they will hide his face), and because it made me think of my brother and sister with cleft palates and numerous surgeries, who had to fit in to a new school—and a new country—during grade school. I usually found it an enjoyable diversion, even if I chose not to give it to my son (entering fifth grade), because its lukewarm assent to what is emotionally good in our culture failed to outweigh the pernicious effects of its normalizing depictions of what I consider to be disordered mores in family life, child sexuality, and, most important to me, language, together with a little bit of symbolic body humor in the opening pages (6–7).

First, the good. Auggie is lovable, and Palacio does not hide his defects. Few readers will remain unsympathetic in the aftermath of Auggie’s first day of school: “‘Why do I have to be so ugly, Mommy?’ I whispered” (60). After 200-plus pages of building sympathy, Palacio lets her hero alienate the reader when Auggie denounces his mother for lying, angrily shouting at her in front of his older sister. Via’s response is fitting, true and good: “Not everything in the world is about you, Auggie” (220)!

The perspectives of (fifth-grade friends) Summer and Jack, (big sister) Via, and (the latter’s high school friends) Justin and Miranda are equally smart and creative. The ways in which Auggie’s more loyal friends betray or criticize him, and in which other, less attached characters intercede for him at crucial moments, provide a beautiful spectrum of responses to the central problem of Auggie’s superficial ugliness.

The book is “child-driven” (Palacio, FAQ). She wants to speak to children, and hopes that they and their parents will come away with lessons of sympathy garnered from her well-imagined and canny insight into the secret thoughts of three fifth-graders and three high schoolers. This in itself does not preclude greatness. Harper Lee’s Scout and J.D. Salinger’s Holden are unforgettable characters from great novels told from the first-person perspective of a middle-schooler and a high-schooler, respectively. One reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is read more by students and teachers is that Lee wrote in language that improves us by improving our ability to think and communicate. Holden Caulfield’s cramped, narrow mode of expression might have been avant-garde in 1951, but Catcher’s decline bears witness to the difference between art that becomes the foundation for a new historical period and that which merely gives license to the gravitational forces slumped against the retaining wall of tottering custom.

In Wonder’s case, coddling the reader as Mom coddles Auggie weakens the book. Palacio’s supine acceptance of the impoverished idiom of middle school (and texting) does nothing to elevate the idiom of its readers, and even brings it down. Some examples are: “me and [name],” (pp. 3, 8, 15, passim), “literally” meaning “metaphorically” (20, passim), reverence for the perverted virtue of dissembling inconvenient truth (12; 32, 33, 95, 127, 182, 190, 208, 218), that the story’s central message of open confrontation of fears and honest acceptance of persons fails to bend into its arc, since only in the instance mentioned (217–219) does it result in discord among characters, and even that episode focuses on the sin of the character (Auggie) decrying hypocrisy. As C.S. Lewis said, “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story” (Of Other Worlds, 24). If the refined idiom of adulthood must be rejected in order to enjoy Wonder, then Wonder is a bad children’s story.

The book presents examples of mores that parents will want to know about in advance. Parents defer to children (e.g. 58, 85) and criticize each other in front of them (Dad takes Via’s side against Mom, 100). Via’s boyfriend visits her alone in her room with parents not home; this is treated as normal (185–188). She and Justin have a kissing relationship, even in front of her parents, who “pretend not to see” (190, 195, 196). Girl narrators observe how “huge” or “flat” other girls are (92, 122). A fifth-grade party consists of boys and girls in a basement together, with no parents home, as the narrating character observes (122). But in a world in which “Who we are!” is more important than “God” and “learning who you are is what you’re here to do” (47), I suppose that also means finding out how your body works with your boyfriend.

In the end, I wished I had not read it, so that I could have actually predicted the very predictable ending, but at least now I have a mediocre book to recommend to anyone who does not want to have to think or focus too much while doing something else, and to feel something akin to that 2013 Argentine Coke Life commercial.

Things to discuss…

  1. What is the main cause of problems for Auggie? Do you agree with his opening statement that the only reason he is not ordinary is that no one else sees him that way?
  2. What is Auggie’s happiest memory of fifth grade? Why do you think he was happier in that moment than any other?
  3. Think of examples of three different characters lying in Wonder. Why did they lie?
  4. Which one of Mr. Browne’s precepts do you think is best? Which one is worst? Do you think any of them are bad?

About the Reviewer

Lionel Yaceczko

Latin, Greek
Lionel Yaceczko holds a BA from the University of Dallas, where he wrote a thesis on Propertius, and a MA and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. His dissertation on education in the Roman Empire led to the publication of his book Ausonius Grammaticus (Gorgias Press, 2021). He is also the author of an introductory Latin textbook, Jerome...
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