Wonder – R.J. Palacio

Earlier this week you may have seen I unintentionally ruffled some feathers when I brought up the subject of ‘New Adult’ fiction. I will admit that on the occasion I can be a book snob in some respects, though I also read M.C Beaton quite regularly just to make a slight conundrum of my own reading frame of mind, so maybe that played a part and maybe that will change too as it has done with YA novels. Not that I could now only ever read YA novels, I don’t quite understand the attraction to doing only that, yet I have certainly on occasion seen that as an adult they can make captivating reading for me too. ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio is one of the best examples of that I have had the pleasure of reading in the last few years.

**** The Bodley Head, hardback, 2012, fiction, 320 pages, borrowed from the library

August Pullman is a young boy who has been born with a facial abnormality. For years he has been as sheltered as possible from the prospective cruel world of people outside his family, neighbours and kids he knew from childhood, yet he is now at an age where home schooling isn’t enough and he needs to think about going to Middle School (what is the UK equivalent of this?) something which his mother and father are initially have opposing views on. It is from his initial visit of a school to his first day that the book starts and we follow August as he meets those who will accept him for who he is and those that won’t.

“For me Halloween is the best holiday in the world. It even beats Christmas. I get to dress up in a costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me. Nobody knows me.”

I have to say, despite the fact that I have heard lots and lots of people raving about this book whose opinions I trust, I had been concerned that this book would be a rather patronising sugar coated lecture for young readers about acceptance and how tolerant we should all be. Note – I am not against this message. Initially with the oh so accepting school, the use of phrases like ‘lamb to the slaughter’ and discussing what they mean, the ‘welcome committee’ of three children August gets along with a teacher who starts to teach all the kids about precepts, I did think that this book was going to be one such book. Yet the more I read on, initially in August’s narrative and through his perspective though this changes, my opinion of the book completely changed. ‘Wonder’ is a very honest book which looks at August’s situation from all sides, even some rather confronting and unappealing ones without ever feeling like it is done as a ploy to sell books.

The way in which Palacio makes the book hit home, and also seems more unflinchingly real, is the fact that as ‘Wonder’ progresses the narratives change. Initially we see how August feels about his life, then we switch to how his sister Via feels being the elder sibling who knows her life isn’t as hard as August’s but is having a tough enough time herself starting High School, then to some of August’s friends and frenemies which links in their parents and some of the teachers thoughts. This creates a fully formed world around August and all of the opinions he has about the people around him, sometimes correctly sometimes not, and also all those people’s opinions of him. We see the kids who genuinely want to be his friends, the ones who talk about him behind his back and believe if you touch him you get ‘the Plague’ and how some of their parents perpetuate this.

“I never used to see August the way other people saw him. I knew he didn’t look exactly normal, but I didn’t understand why strangers seemed so shocked when they saw him. Horrified. Sickened. Scared. There are so many words I can use to describe the looks on people’s faces. And for a long time I didn’t get it. I’d just get mad. Mad when they stared. Mad when they looked away. “What the heck are you looking at?” I’d say to people – even grownups.”

Palacio may put August through the wringer on occasion but she never makes him ‘the victim’ nor does she make him completely adorable and perfect, sometimes he can be stubborn, opinionated and judge others, or write them off, himself. She also uses a deftly light sense of humour throughout, August is the butt of people’s jokes but there is no humour there, yet when he laughs at himself and encourages those he trusts to do so we read a long. This also creates a certain weight to the novel, highlighting the darker aspects of the book.

I was impressed with ‘Wonder’ it is a tale the like of which we may have read in books, regardless of them being YA or not, before yet with its sense of humour and multiple narratives I think this book exceeds far beyond others of its type as it becomes a multi faceted living breathing world because of its honesty from all view points. I can see why so many people were raving about it last year, though it is a ‘lighter’ read for an adult it would be an exceptional one for the market which it is most aimed at. I myself highly recommend you give it a read.

Who else had read ‘Wonder’ and what did you make of it? What are your thoughts on adults reading YA literature?


Filed under Bodley Head Books, R.J. Palacio, Review, Young Adult Fiction

22 responses to “Wonder – R.J. Palacio

  1. sounds like an interesting take on the coming of age novel simon ,I must admiot I do love the cover of this one every time I see it I think it is so eye catching (no pun intended ) ,all the best stu

    • Ha, even though the pun wasnt intended it was good 😉 I think this is a great book for any age of reader to be honest, about tolerance and difference and also because its just a really good book and story. I will be forcing my little siblings to read it that is for sure.

  2. I bought this for my daughter for Christmas, and she told me that I must read it, so I’ll be doing that sometime this year.

    I don’t care what everyone else reads, but I personally am very picky about the YA books I read. They have to be something really special for me to read them. I already lived through that time in my life, and it’s not something I would enjoy revisiting every day.

    • You must listen to your daughter, well on this subject at least, ha.

      I am picky with my YA too. Most of it I dont tend to get on with, Twilight ended up boring me and I preffered the films and despire my siblings and mothers (and most commentors here) rave reviews I really couldnt get into The Hunger Games at all.

  3. Col

    I tend not to read YA – it’s less a conscious decision and more to do with the marketing of YA (and non-YA) books – they seldom come onto my radar so I seldom choose them or read them. Having said that, this sounds like an interesting read. Although I don’t read much YA, I think the fact it’s there is great – when I was growing up as a reader I don’t think there was a YA genre – it was more about making a gradual transition from children’s literature to adults really – if YA had been around back in my day (god I sound like a right old fart!) I’d have enjoyed it. And I like the sound of this – so I’ll be giving it a go!

    • I know what you mean about the radar thing. I dont tend to hear too much about them too often. This one I heard about endlessly though so it made me sit up and pay attention. You arent an old fart, or if you are I am too as there was certainly no YA back in my day!

  4. Kateg

    I bought this for one of my sons for Christmas as recommended by Ann and Michael at Books on the Nightstand. Based on your review, Simon, I will have to read it. As an adult, I am not a big fan of YA. I read the first two in the Hunger Games trilogy and thought they were okay, but I haven’t gone back for the third (although I have a “thing” about finishing series- I don’t like stories to end sometimes. I haven’t read the third Stieg Larsson yet either). When I was in my teens, YA was becoming a genre here in the States and I read a lot, but I also migrated to the Adult Fiction section also. There is still so many good adult books that I haven’t read so I rarely look in the YA section for something to read. It takes a good review to push me in that direction. Thanks!

    • Kateg, stop while you’re ahead with The Hunger Games – the third one is not good!

      I loved Wonder, which is more of a children’s book than YA, but seems to appeal to people of all ages. I liked the variety of perspectives and that Auggie had such a self-deprecating sense of humor. He came across as a real kid, not a character in a book who exists to teach you a lesson about kindness. This book stood out to me in the same way as I’ll Be There by Holly Golberg Sloan, which is a totally different story but one I highly recommend if you liked this one.

      • I think I am one of the very rare people who didnt even get the first Hunger Games, oh dear!

        Do you think this is more a kids book? Interesting. I would say it was more YA than anything else. It seemed aimed at an older market I thought.

    • I too heard Ann raving about this and she was one of the many people who made the recommendation and so made me think ‘hmmmm maybe’! I am glad that I listened to the advice though.

      I know what you mean about spending tie wanting to read older fiction so missing the YA market too, but then they arent aimed at us really are they.

      • Simon, threegoodrats is right, the main audience for Wonder is actually children – ages 8 to 12 – so it isn’t a YA book. (YA’s main audience is 12-17 years old… and anyone else who enjoys these books.) And I agree with threegoodrats that Wonder can also be considered a book for all ages. Also, to answer your question about middle school, it’s usually Grades 4 – 8 in the areas that use that system. That would be students who range between about 8 and 13 years old.

      • Thank you for explaining middle school Lindy. That was something that got a teeny bit lost in translation ha!

        It amazes me that there are these remits with age for these books as you’d think it might limit younger readers rather than make them push out of the ages their meant to read in. Maybe that’s just me and the fact I didn’t have these when I was younger way back when. Ha.

      • Simon, regarding age categories, that’s something to assist with marketing books. It makes it simpler to decide where to place them on bookstore and library shelves. It also makes it simpler for readers by narrowing down the options – because too many choices can be overwhelming. Readers do, however find books in many other ways. Which is great! That’s how 9-year-olds pick up Stephen King and people like you pick up Wonder.

      • True yes people do still explore and that’s very good. I just think the sign postings a little much.

  5. gaskella

    I loved it. As an adult read, it was predictable and you could feel yourself being manipulated – but it was done so well, and there were valid nudges for adults too. As a book for older children and early teens, it would be brilliant – my daughter now has my copy in her TBR pile.

    • I didnt feel I was being manipulated to be honest Annabel. I just thought it was a good read with a moral tale at the heart of it. I liked the fact, as you mention, that not only were the nudges for kids but for adults too and that adults could make mistakes or wrong assumptions that was something else I respected about it, and no one was truly bad if you know what I mean.

  6. ummlilia

    I read Wonder in tandem with my 8 year old daughter (we take turns to read a chapter/section aloud) and I have to say it was a very good experience. Not only did we enjoy the story but it threw up so many issues to discuss about how we treat each other and how we treat people who are different, as well as other stuff about how to navigate the shark-infested waters of the schoolyard. Excellent…
    On the subject of YA though..I just don’t understand why adults who have the whole canon of literature available to them would wish to spend their time on it..maybe it’s just me..I grew up at the time when we just went seamlessly from children’s books to more grown-up stuff. Still, each to his/her own.

    • Annabel (gaskella)

      Amongst the huge amount of YA dross – there are some authors who write wonderful literary novels that work as adult books too. I am a huge fan of Marcus Sedgwick and Sally Gardner in particular in this regard. (Philip Reeve and Patrick Ness too). Please don’t dismiss them all.

    • Oh I love that idea of reading in tandem, that is lovely.

      I think its interesting you mention pondering why adult readers read more YA, and yet you have seen why with wonder. Or do you mean adult readers who only read YA?

      • ummlilia

        I read Wonder specifically as a children’s book with my daughter and it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to read it otherwise, however good. Perhaps part of my feeling is because I only hear of the super-successful stuff like The Hunger Games and Twilight (which is fan-fiction I know) and am not aware of a wider range of authors,such as Annabel(gaskella) posted above.
        It may sound a bit daft but I love literary fiction and the classics so much that I get all evangelical about it and want everyone to love them too ,and worry about people missing out if they only read YA.. (I’m sure they’ll survive …!)

      • I think people just like what they like and I used to be much snobbier about YA fiction than I am now. There’s some great stuff and theirs some dross. It’s the same with literary fiction though too.

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