Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Wonder, a novel by R. J. Palacio, tells the story of August Pullman who, after having been homeschooled all his life, is just beginning the fifth grade at a New York school. Fifth grade at this school marks the beginning of middle school, a transition that could be tough for any kid. Right from the start, though, August lets the reader know why starting middle school might be just a bit tougher for him: he was born with severe facial abnormalities, and despite numerous reconstructive surgeries, he still looks different. Noticeably different. He says he's grown used to the shocked and horrified looks of passers-by on the street, but he's not sure he's ready to face his peers at school day after day after day.

This story is primarily about August and his first year of middle school, but Palacio makes it so much deeper by rotating the narrators throughout the story. We start off seeing this year of change from August's perspective, then from his sister Via's perspective as she begins high school at a school where almost no one knows about her family "situation." We also get to see this year from the point of view of Summer, a girl who befriends August on the first day of school through the simple act of sitting with him at lunch, and of Jack, a boy who begins the school year feeling obligated to be August's friend.

These different narrators show quite clearly that, while August's struggles might be more obvious than most, no kid in middle or high school is really playing with a full deck of cards. You might seem popular but be hiding a painful divorce at home; you might feel like the token "poor kid" at your school; you might feel completely unsupported at home and thus wholly unsure of yourself. Palacio does a magnificent job of telling a beautiful story while also highlighting the theme that no one feels fully secure in his- or herself--and in that we are all very, very alike, no matter how different we may seem.

I'd be surprised if Wonder isn't a major Newbery contender for this year, and I'll be recommending it for fourth-grade-and-up readers looking for a great book or to supplement their reading of the state award-nominated titles. Highly recommended.

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