Audio Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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March 29, 2013 by Heidi

Wonder by R.J. PalacioTitle: 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.”

Armchair Audies
This review was written as part of the 2013 Armchair Audies.

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12 comments »

  1. I borrowed the audio of this from the library and just listened to some of it last night. I’m not sure if I want to keep going. First of all, I don’t like Auggie’s narrator and second, I haven’t read a middle grade book since I was in elementary/middle school. It’s quite a change for me and I don’t know if I can do it, as pathetic as it sounds. I listened to the Tushman/Butt joke last night and was like, yeah…this might not be the book for me.

    Excellent review though. I think we’d probably have the same feelings about it as a whole if I decide to finish it. Based on what I just wrote though…I doubt that’ll happen :-/

    PS: Hopefully my comments about it being middle grade don’t make me sound like a snob. I promise I’m not!

    • Heidi says:

      Not at all, Kyle! I AM an avid Middle Grade reader, and even I had the ‘this may be too young for me’ reaction initially. Honestly, I would have DNF’ed this one pretty early on into my listening (as you see, I didn’t love the Auggie narration either), but I forged on for the Armchair Audies. I liked it MUCH more once the perspective changes hit, but it wasn’t enough to make me anything but underwhelmed with this book.

  2. I love that you actually think critically about books and scratch beneath the surface for actual meaning. Granted, I really enjoyed Wonder and thought it was good, but then you bring up all these issues and things about inauthenticity and I can’t help but think yeah, you definitely have a point, and then why didn’t I see that while reading. So, you know, it’s cool that you do examine books deeply. And I AM SO GLAD I AM NOT ALONE ABOUT THE DOG, ugh, that just felt so freakin’ cheap to me.

    Also. I love The Simpsons and all the voices on there, LOL.

    Okay, the end.

    • Heidi says:

      Thank you, April! So glad other people hate the dog thing, it was just terrible. I think listening to this one on audio helped me think critically about it, because the time spent reading it was so spread out.

  3. Incredibly insightful review, Heidi! I feel as if I’d have many of the same reactions you had to this novel and, as someone who tends to avoid the MG genre with a few exceptions, I don’t think I’d wind up loving this the way other readers have. It was on my TBR Shelf, but maybe I’ll recommend it to my younger brother instead. Thanks for such a helpful review, dearest! :)

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Keertana! Yeah, as a non-avid MG fan, I really think you can skip this one, but it IS an excellent recommendation for your little brother.

  4. Holly says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out why I didn’t love this one Heidi, and I think your review might’ve helped somewhat. I know I definitely suffered from the hype, but I didn’t find Auggie’s character all that believable in parts. I guess I wanted more realistic suffering and anger, like you say. More complexity. I don’t think the overall message touched me like it should. “Be Kind” does seem too simple, or too saccharine, for an adult reader. I put off reading this for months and now I know why. It didn’t take forever to read but in retrospect I think I could’ve DNFed. And the dog?! Ugh. I think that’s becoming the biggest stereotype. (Author to self: MC has a dog? Let’s kill it off for dramatic effect!)

    • Heidi says:

      So glad you shared my sentiments on this one, Holly! Honestly, I would have DNF’ed it if it weren’t for the Audies. The dog thing was my greatest moment of rage…this book was certainly good overall, but it just wasn’t the great that everyone seemed to be seeing. I was disappointed.

  5. […] the perspective of her white southern family, never before realizing that as kind as they may seem, treating one with kindness is not the same as treating them as an equal.  What changes are Sophie’s perspectives on freedom, respect, dignity, and family, and our […]

  6. […] While the story wasn’t my favorite (in fact, of the 5 nominees, it was my least favorite), I did feel the audio production was fairly well done. Using three narrators worked well, particularly Nick Podehl whose accent abilities really made his characters.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the narration for the main character, Augie, by Diana Steele because I felt that the scratchy female narration for a young boy came across as too like the Simpsons for me.  You can read my full review here. […]

  7. Wonder #1 says:

    […] This website explains how the different viewpoints of the narrators affect the story; http://bunburyinthestacks.com/review-2/audio-review-wonder-by-r-j-palacio/ […]

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