August Pullman is pretty much petrified. Born with a facial deformity that’s already required 27 surgeries and has made school an impossibility, Auggie has always studied at home. But this year he’s headed to fifth grade at Beecher Prep, and even his dad secretly worries they are sending him off like a “lamb to the slaughter.”
Fortunately for Auggie, his new teachers are remarkable. His English teacher encourages students to think about their personal precepts, their rules for important things. The first note the teacher writes on the chalkboard is his own September precept: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”
The school’s principal, the amusingly-named Mr. Tushman, is possibly the wisest school administrator in the history of children’s literature. At their introduction to the school in late summer, he invites the Pullman family into his office and introduces Auggie to some of his classmates. His assistant assures his mom that they will take really good care of her son. At Beecher Prep, August Pullman seems to be in mostly good hands.
But of course, there are some who can’t quite decide what to make of a kid with ears like tiny cauliflowers and a mouth that doesn’t chew properly. No one sits with him at lunch. He’s called Freak, Monster, Freddy Krueger, Gross-out. Classmates concoct a cruel game of “plague,” refusing to touch the boy, giving him a wide berth as they pass him in the halls. Hateful notes appear in lockers of students who’ve looked beyond his face to find a funny, smart friend.
Despite the cruelty of some of his schoolmates, and even a few parents, this remarkable boy manages not only to survive fifth grade but to excel.
In Wonder, her first novel for young readers, R.J. Palacio skillfully tells her hero’s story in multiple voices. August, his friends, his sister, even his sister’s boyfriend give us a window into the school year and into the life of a bright, funny kid. He has a Star Wars obsession, loves Halloween, ice cream, and his dog. He’s a typical 10-year-old who warns his mom not to hug in public yet collapses into her arms when the emotional pain hits. In so many ways, this is just an ordinary boy trying to figure out who he is.
The difference is that Auggie has known a level of sadness most kids will never experience. And he can laugh about it. While showing readers the many ways his real friends stand up for August Pullman, R.J. Palacio’s remarkable book truly proves that kindness is the best choice.
A wise, beautifully-told story that holds up kindness as a personal precept, “Wonder” should be read by every middle school student, and their parents and teachers. Although the novel is filled with contemporary touch points – musical, technological, and cultural – I predict it will age well. A special story about courage, family, and friendship, this is one terrific book. Don’t miss it.
Augusta Scattergood, author of "Glory Be," reviews children’s books for the Monitor.