What’s the correct way to react to someone with a severe physical deformity? (Keep in mind that chances are they’re not unaware of their appearance.) How do you handle it should your child react, as children will tend to do, with either a piercingly audible query about ‘that funny looking person’, or worse, burst into tears? It was just such an encounter that prompted Palacio to write Wonder…and yes, she includes that in the book, albeit from the perspective of the person with the deformity. She spent the rest of the afternoon not only chagrined at her reaction and that of her children but also wondering “How should I explain this to my children? What is the correct response? …and what must it be like to be that person, always aware that people are whispering about you, staring (or NOT staring) at your disfiguration?”
The central character of Wonder, “Auggie” (August) Pullman, was born with a severe facial deformity, Treacher-Collins syndrome. Now ten, he’s undergone something like twenty-seven surgeries, and still has considerable facial deformation; he still has difficulties eating, and choking is a real hazard. He’s been homeschooled until now, though as he reaches the fifth grade (both in age and in academic achievement) he and his family are coming to realize that it may be time for him to enter a conventional school. Not only has his mother approached the point at which she can no longer teach him—she’s terrible at fractions—but he’s also begun to mature to the point of wanting relationships outside his own family.
The main story arc of the book takes place during Auggie’s fifth grade year at a private school, Beecher Prep. As most astute readers will have guessed by about the second chapter in, yes: despite a pre-school year intervention from the school’s principal assigning him a couple of informal guides as he settles into the school, Auggie has to deal with the stares, the revulsion, the “teasing” and the outright bullying that we’d all expect…and not just from the kids. At one point, the parents of the Mean Kid approach the principal with a request that Auggie be withdrawn from the school as they do not believe he’s up to the school’s standards1. At least the kids are up front about it; there’s a “game” among some of the students that they have thirty seconds to wash his ‘germs’ away if they touch something he’s touched. As the year wears on, the more open-minded kids do undergo a sea change; at first, it’s only a couple of kids who will voluntarily spend time with Auggie, but by the spring, others come to tease him in an affectionate way: at one point, he makes a joke about being the basis for “UglyDolls“, and the next day the girl to whom he was speaking gives him a keychain-sized one with a note “For the nicest AuggieDoll in the world!” This isn’t universal; the Mean Kid Julian didn’t have his own revelation about Auggie’s condition which made him a better person. That’s only reality, though. Not everyone is going to come out a better and more sympathetic person as a result of knowing someone like Auggie.
Palacio shifts between several of the kids’ viewpoints: Auggie gets the most stage time, but his older sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of the kids at school also get several of their own chapters. This might be a bit disjointed for some kids, but I think it works here; it’s nice to hear what the other characters think. As a kids’ book, I’m guessing it’s pretty much on the mark in terms of plotting, characterization and reading level. Reading it as an adult, I did pick up certain “after-school special movie of the week”, the kind in which everyone Learns a Lesson and the Mean Kids all become better people, but that’s not necessarily a complaint!
What to read next? Try Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, and its sequel, After Ever After. The medical issue is very different—leukemia rather than an intrinsic part of the child’s appearance—but both concentrate on the child’s reaction to the problem more than on the treatment of same.
1Treacher-Collins, at least in Auggie’s case, has no mental component. It’s purely a physical issue.