March 29, 2013 by Heidi
Title: Wonder [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: R.J. Palacio [Website|Twitter|Tumblr]
Narrator: Diana Steele, Nick Podehl, and Kate Rudd
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary
Published: February 14th, 2012 by Brilliance Audio
Format: Audio; 8 hrs, 6 min.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.
I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?
R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.
I have fairly complicated feelings in regards to R.J. Palacio’s critically acclaimed debut, Wonder. On the one hand, I can see why so many readers have fallen in love with this story of a young man who is deformed (forgive me for using a word the characters in this book hate, I’m not sure how else to put it) and those who come to know and care about him in various capacities. On the other hand, I see so many glaring issues with this story and the structure of the book itself that I feel are completely overlooked for the overall message. Throughout the first portion of the book I was groaning inwardly, certain from Auggie’s perspective and the nauseating inclusion of particular song lyrics and quotes that this was headed for heavy-handed message territory of the Saccharin sweet middle grade variety, but I soon realized that there was a greater depth to Wonder that took it away from that direction while still imparting the all-important and basic message of–“be kind”.
I felt that where R.J. Palacio’s work excelled was in her writing of the various viewpoints other than Auggie himself–Auggie’s sister, her boyfriend and ex-best-friend, Auggie’s friends–these were the characters I felt Palacio truly infused with a complicated understanding of what it can be to learn to care for this child that is physically so different from anyone around him, and mentally quite the same. However, where Wonder faltered for me in its narration was that of Auggie himself. These were the portions that felt the least genuine to me. I do realize that everyone’s life experience varies, and that perhaps R.J. Palacio herself is acquainted with such a child, but Auggie’s character came across as too simple for me. We see only small signs of struggle with his condition, and usually from those other perspectives. I find it hard to believe that a young man entering not only middle school, but also public school for the first time could deal with all of these trials so simply. I felt Auggie’s struggles to fit in lacked the complexity and emotion that he himself must surely feel–instead this complexity was shown more from outsiders. Auggie seemed so content to fit in the here and now, seemed perfectly happy with being demeaned by his classmates as long as they were doing so in a friendly fashion, and didn’t at all struggle with wants and desires for anything beyond a very surface acceptance. Perhaps it is the cynic in me that calls for more anger in such a character, and Auggie did have flashes of anger, but it wasn’t enough for me that he received kindness–I wanted him to truly receive the respect of his peers and be looked at as an equal rather than being defined by his deformity. Let us be reminded that The Golden Rule is not “be kind”, it is “treat others how you would like to be treated”–there is an important difference.
Auggie, unsurprisingly, deals with his condition by having a sense of humor about it. This is how he breaks through to many children his own age and gets along with his family, but it’s never addressed how this need to hide behind humor has to really hurt him on occasion. It is clear however, in a very positive sense, that Auggie’s ability to laugh at himself comes from hi family. Auggie’s family is absolutely wonderful; one of the brightest aspects of this book is their being very supportive, loving, and humorous with one another, though not without real struggles. I was happy that we saw a struggle between his parents not only with issues regarding Auggie, but also those regarding his sister, Olivia. I was glad that we saw his sister take on so much and finally break under the strain of always being defined by her brother’s deformity, unlike Auggie who seems unable to define himself without it.
However, my other greatest issue with Palacio’s construct is that she doesn’t seem to know how to resolve conflict. When the more explosive and complicated issues arise in this story, she simply sweeps them under the rug, or attempts to distract readers. *Minor spoilers coming up, so feel free to skip to next paragraph if you want.* At one point when the family tension has mounted to its peak instead of ever resolving or talking through that issue, she kills the family dog, making both characters and readers forget that there was that tension to begin with. Later, the one kid at Auggie’s school that remains cruel to him transfers schools. I just found this overwhelming sense of resolution at the end of the book so unbelievable, it almost feels as if Auggie’s trials in life are all over, everyone accepts him for who he is and he will live happily ever after. I just can’t believe that of any young kid.
All of these issues aside, the audio production for Wonder is, indeed, wonderful. Again, my least favorite part of the narration was of the character Auggie, and I will admit that this may have had some reflection on my feelings toward the book in general. Diana Steele does a fine job of narrating this young man, but honestly the scratchy sensation of having a grown woman narrate a boy’s voice gave me the feeling that I was watching an episode of The Simpsons. Nick Podehl’s sections were, no surprise, the highlight of Wonder via audio for me, as he does an impeccable job of voicing several male characters both with and without strong New York accents. Kate Rudd’s sections were also excellent, though with less audible differentiation between characters; as the book is split into sections by character, this really isn’t an issue. One aspect of the written book that you miss when listening is the unique way it is printed. I believe there are different fonts used for the various characters, as well as misspellings, etc. for when characters are writing to one another. Personally I believe this is an aspect that may have further annoyed me and I am happy to do without, but other readers do enjoy these types of distinction.
While I have many reservations about Wonder and its immense popularity, I can definitely see its value as a work for young readers, and think it is an excellent book to place in the hands of boys and girls. It examines issues of bullying, economics, friendships made and broken, family, and school, in a way that provides readers with uniquely varying viewpoints to remind them to attempt to look at all issues from another’s point of view. I would certainly recommend this one, though I remain skeptical that it truly deserves the amount of accolades it has received.
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: I’m actually uncertain here, it largely depends on where R.J. Palacio chooses to go with her future work. She could certainly grow as an author, but I also fear that such praise for her debut work will keep her from that growth.
Recommended for: Certainly recommended for young readers as an impetus for putting themselves in another’s shoes, however I do not think it holds the same weight for adults as it seems oversimplified to me.
Get a second opinion:
The Readventurer (Flannery) – “I thought this book was wonderful (pun initially unintended but I’m leaving it in so I guess there is intent behind it now) and I absolutely recommend it to parents and teachers who would like to read something worthwhile and inspirational with children as well as to any readers who enjoy middle grade books.”
The Readventurer (Catie) – “All I have is my own experience, and it tells me that it’s better to treat people with dignity and respect than with kindness. And so the central point of this book (for all that it is very well-meaning) seems at best simplistic to me – and at worst – insulting.”
Good Books and Good Wine – “Palacio shows that kindness is necessary and something we should endeavor to treat others with. I think in our fast paced world treating others with dignity is something to strive towards and not forget, and Wonder beautifully reinforces this idea.”
Random Musings of a Bibliophile – “The voices of the characters and the interconnectedness of life that they demonstrate are well worth the rather minor plot flaws in my opinion.”
This review was written as part of the 2013 Armchair Audies.