Allison's Book Bag

Wonder by RJ Palacio

Posted on: August 1, 2014

I don’t hate Wonder, but I also don’t love it as others seem to. To me, Palacio is trying to write a feel-good book. A heavy-handed message and inaccurate facts takes precedence over the crafting of a good story. However, she misses the mark of a feel-good book by at times being patronizing and offensive.

An often heard expression is “it’s all in the details”. For me, WWonder‘ details are shaky. August is about to start middle school, which means he should be entering sixth grade or possibly seventh. Nope, he’s starting fifth. Next, I had an issue with the fact the classrooms had chalkboards rather than whiteboards. Is this story set in the past? Nope. Does the book explain why a modern school is still using chalkboards? Nope. Finally, there’s lunch. For the nine years I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen it done only one way. Students aren’t allowed to sit anywhere they want, as they do in Wonder. They enter in line order and the only time that line order is broken is when students are pulled for misbehavior. Are there schools that let kids sit anywhere? Maybe, so I gave the book a partial pass on this one. But the liberties taken with these details made me question everything else in the story.

Now that I’ve nitpicked, let’s get to the meat of my issues with Wonder. By now, anyone familiar with Wonder probably knows the inspiration behind it: Palacio and her sons encountered a little girl with a craniofacial abnormality, her three-year-old cried in fear, and Palacio reacted by fleeing with her children. Within a day, feeling she had missed the opportunity for a good teaching moment, Palacio began writing Wonder. Frankly, I thought that, in the wake of gems like Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine and Rules by Cynthia Lord, we were beyond stories being used as little more than a vehicle to promote acceptance of those who are different. Repeatedly, August tells us that he views himself as normal. In contrast, Mockingbird brings readers into the life of a girl with autism who is learning to deal with death, and through her experience we get a glimpse into what it’s like to have autism. I also thought authors had stopped serving up books which use a character to show the rest of the world how to act. The whole theme of Wonder, even by Palacio’s admission, is that we should all learn to be kinder. In contrast, Rules shows us a girl who is learning how to deal with her brother’s autism, which sometimes she enjoys and other times makes her furious.

I have one more quibble with Wonder. At times, August seems childish and even slow. Definitely not like the fifth graders I have taught. He did undergo several surgeries as a child. Did this put him back academically? His parents are also overprotective. Does this make him emotionally immature? Perhaps Palacio wanted to show August’s transition from being a dependent to independent child, but I still feel bothered. I have never met anyone with craniofacial abnormalities, but from what I’ve read they can have speech and language disabilities which doesn’t necessarily mean academic disabilities. Based on Wonder, readers might get the wrong impression about the intelligence of those with craniofacial abnormalities. (Oh, and it also brings up another inaccuracy. August’s school is private and so does not admit those with special needs. The book doesn’t say if August has impaired speech, but he does eventually wear hearing aids and speech impairment often goes hand-in-hand with hearing impairment.)

The craniofacial community seems to have embraced Wonder, as have anti-bullying organizations and a number of top-notch review magazines. Wonder also has an exemplary message, one which would be worthy of a classroom discussion. I’ve also read reader reviews by those who question the portrayal of August, which has inspired questions about what it must like to have craniofacial abnormalities. For the above reasons, you might want to check it out Wonder.

However, I’m going to end with a plea. Future writers of books for young people, while you should absolutely write more books about individuals with special needs, please treat your characters with respect by making them three-dimensional and placing them into rich stories, and don’t just use them as a teaching moment. That’s not fair to anyone.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

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