Almost two weeks ago, I proposed we take on a year-long reading challenge. For January’s challenge, I chose to read Wonder by R.J. Palacio as the book I’ve been meaning to read. I just, just finished it (it’s a middle-grade book, so it flew by pretty quickly. Don’t expect reviews so quickly in future months!). I thought I’d begin to sum up my thoughts for any interested parties.
Y’all. I shouldn’t have any trouble praising this book, but I’m a bit stumped on this one.
Wonder skyrocketed to popularity so high that it now lives on many school-reading lists, which is shocking considering it was published a mere five years ago. I haven’t seen the movie, which came out in November, but I suppose I should take a few hours to invest.
First, a summary (but no spoilers! Pinky promise!).
August “Auggie” Pullman is starting the fifth grade. As the result of many unlucky, genetic happenstances, Auggie was born with a shockingly “deformed” face, though he hates that word, so I apologize for using it. He tells us—on page one—”I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
He has always been homeschooled until now. He says he wasn’t homeschooled because of his face, but because of the many surgeries (27 since he was born) required to help him function.
And, now, he’s about to encounter “real” school. As if middle school is easy—even if you’re the pretty kid.
He has a rocky start, as kids (and their parents) who can be so, so cruel. They even start a game called “The Plague” behind his back, where anyone who touches him essentially has “cooties.” He earns a friend or two who can look beyond his outward appearance and see the normal, fun-loving soul on the inside. By the end (slight spoiler?), he’s a beloved member of the school.
R.J. Palacio (the author’s pen name, as her real name is Raquel Jaramillo. Fun fact.) told Auggie’s story through a few different sets of eyes: Auggie, his best friend, his older sister, his sister’s boyfriend, his best female friend. I love how his older sister, Olivia (Via), describes her family:
August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun. The only celestial body that doesn’t orbit August the Sun is Daisy the dog, and that’s only because to her little doggy eyes, August’s face doesn’t look very different from any other human’s face. To Daisy, all our faces look alike, as flat and pale as the moon.
The characters have a lot of heart and wit. I loved them and the individual voices (and grammatical issues) Palacio gave them. She did an amazing job connecting with the mind of a fictional fifth-grade boy. I enjoyed the family relationships, especially how honest they were in dealing with Auggie’s issues. I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading this to my children someday, as it’s a great story to teach about protecting (or potentially being) the underdog.
The book’s message is crystal clear: Be kind.
Also, “choose kind” (as is embossed on the hardcover under the dust jacket).
“Be a little kinder than necessary,” the principal says at Auggie’s fifth-grade graduation.
But here’s my question. Why? Why should we be kind?
This phrase and ideal is rampant in our culture these days. Maybe it started five years ago when this book was published and merchandising picked up. I’m not sure about that connection, but it’s possible. It’s sweet, succinct, and easy to slap on a tote bag or T-shirt.
I wish we could all just get along. I really do. Maybe if we were all a little nicer, we’d stop having mass shootings or bullying or prejudice or hate or just plain ugliness. At its end, though, it’s implying that we can be better without God.
If we could all just pull it together, we, as a human race, could be happy. Alone. On our own.
I’m just not buying it. I think it’s an empty sentiment. I mean, it’s better than having middle-grade books pushing for hate. I get that. It’s a nice attempt at something worthwhile, but it’s still empty. I tend to believe that without God’s intervention, we’re all going to be self-seeking and self-centered. End of story. #SorryNotSorry
In Wonder, that same middle-school principal (Mr. Tushman, whose name made little Auggie roll with laughter), quotes Christopher Nolan’s Under the Eye of the Clock. The quote references seeing “the face of God in human form” as it “glimmered in their kindness to him.”
Tushman sums it up this way:
“If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
He paused and shrugged.
“Or whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in,” he added quickly, smiling, which got a lot of laughs and loads of applause, especially from the back of the auditorium, where the parents were sitting.
I wish he (or rather, the author) had left well enough alone, as I believe he was right the first time.
I wish humans would be kind for a bigger, true reason. Then we would be kind because we’re so incredibly grateful for the most loving, most non-random act of kindness possible: Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.
And I think this kindness lasts. It has more meaning. It goes beyond “let me do something nice” and moves into living a lifestyle of service because you know how much you don’t deserve the kindness of your Savior. This is the lifestyle I’m constantly trying to live and especially the one I’m attempting to teach my kiddos.
And so, that’s why I struggled with the seemingly perfect moral in a beloved middle-grade, pedestaled novel.
What do you think? Am I just a curmudgeon who apparently believes the worst of people?