When I was a first grade student at Oakhills Elementary School in Granite Bay, California, I was terrified. Not of my teacher Mrs. Bills (although she did scream at me once about my lackluster craft project, prompting me to hate craft making for the rest of my life!). Not of my homework (I could finish my entire week’s homework on Monday afternoon). No, I was terrified of a student. And not because he was a bully. His name was Michael, and he was a burn victim—his face was brown, chapped, not normal like all the other students. He scared me more than any horror movie could at the time, and I avoided him at all costs. I never once tried to talk to him, get to know him, be his friend. I never bothered to discover the person hew as on the inside.
I hadn’t thought about Michael in years, but he returned to the forefront of my mind as I read R.J. Palacio’s beautiful, if flawed, debut novel Wonder, about a young boy named August (aka Auggie) who has severe facial abnormalities, and who attempts public school for the first time in his fifth grade year. Of course most of the kids are scared of him but don’t know what to think of him, but the friends come slowly and surely, like a girl Summer, and Jack Will, who holds a secret but ultimately stands for what’s right. He has a great home life, with his caring mother and father, and sarcastic but loving sister Via. The book is told in short one-to-three page chapters, and they cover Auggie’s sometimes difficult but ultimately heroic fifth grade year.
About half of Palacio’s 320-page novel is told from the perspective of August himself, and this material I really loved. While it was difficult jumping from John Green’s flawless and emotionally devastating YA novel The Fault in Our Stars, to a less subtle, more predictable middle-grade novel (not to mention, both books are about kids with life-altering defects!), I really got caught up in the boy’s story and wanted to see him succeed. The major flaw in Wonder, however, is that the author unexpectedly switches narrators 82 pages in, and I didn’t feel these changes in perspectives added much to the narrative—in fact, I found them unnecessary and even confusing at times. I enjoyed the chapters from Via’s perspective—she gave some insight into August’s difficult journey—but the quick shifts to Summer, Jack, Justin, and especially Miranda, broke me away from August and didn’t feel essential in making this story work. I don’t have a problem with books that shift narrators—Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World is one of my favorites, and that one jumps from one character to another chapter by chapter—but Wonder felt like August’s story, and when I wasn’t inside his head, I felt like I had stepped into filler material that was added to lengthen the novel.
But other than this one major flaw I found in the storytelling, I had a great time with Wonder. This is the talented author R.J. Palacio’s debut novel, and I’m excited to read more of her work in the future. August is a fascinating character, the kind you don’t find as the hero in too many novels, middle grade or otherwise, and it’s a story that needed to be told. This kid, no matter how deformed he may look on the outside, has nothing but love and warmth on the inside, with the kind of potential and opportunities that are boundless. If I can end with anything in this review, it would be three simple words: I’m sorry, Michael.