I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.
RJ Palacio’s 2012 debut novel Wonder grabbed me from the very first paragraph. It tells the story of ten-year-old Auggie, born with a severe facial deformity, who is starting a mainstream school for the first time in his life. The book spans one school year, starting at the end of the summer holidays as Auggie prepares to meet his new classmates, ending at graduation the following summer.
Although it’s a modern children’s book, with a light, conversational tone, there’s also something satisfyingly complex about Wonder which makes it well worth a read for adults too. The viewpoint switches between several different child narrators – from Auggie, to his sister Via, and then to several of their school friends. In this way, the full truth of why characters act the way they do is gradually revealed, one perspective at a time. So often when I read children’s fiction I come away feeling that the writer is dumbing down, patronising my kids (hello Lauren Childs, I’m looking at you) so I really like RJ Palacio’s assumption that her readers are bright enough to handle this complicated plot structure. It’s a technique that reminded me of a far more challenging novel, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. It’s a tribute to Palacio’s skill that she can make this complicated structure look simple and effective.
The circumstances in which you first read a book can sometimes affect your perception and spoil your memories of it (The Hobbit is forever linked in my mind with chicken pox for this reason). It’s a testament to just how good Wonder is, then, that I still remember it fondly even though I read it a few years ago during a really difficult time. Reading late at night by torchlight, turning the pages as quietly as I could by the bed of an ill child while she struggled to sleep – these are circumstances that could put you off a lesser book for life. But a good book, like music, can sustain you through tough times. Some of the emotions Palacio conveys – like her description of how Auggie and Via’s mother puts a brave face on Hallowe’en every year even though it’s the anniversary of her own mother’s death, and the impact on Via’s self-esteem of Auggie’s needs always taking priority – really resonated with my own life experience, and for that reason I found it an incredibly affirming, uplifting book to read.
I’m looking forward to seeing the new film adaptation of Wonder, which is due to be released in the USA this week (we have to wait a bit longer in the UK). It will be interesting to see if the film will manage to convey the different characters’ inner lives and motivations in the same depth as the book, or whether it will have morphed into a heartstring tugging tale of a plucky disabled kid overcoming the odds. Of course, even with this Hollywood treatment, it could still be a good film, don’t get me wrong – but the book is so much more.