Wonder by R.J. Palacio – 3/ 5 stars
Wonder, oh Wonder. I had avoided reading this book because I rarely find that hyped books live up to the hype. I am a critic. I nitpick. It is part of my personality and also part of my academic training. I can thoroughly enjoy a book while I’m reading it and then point out all its flaws while I’m reviewing it. I strongly suspected a book written by an author who saw a boy with a deformed face and decided she had the right to tell his story would be one I would suffer through. I was mostly right.
To start, it’s important we are all on the same page about what ableism is, since it’s central to the critique of this book. Ableism broadly is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. More subtlely, it’s treating non able-bodied people as if there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed. If you read Wonder, you might have cringed after reading that statement, because you probably remember how nearly every character in the book felt that there was something wrong with Auggie that needed to be fixed. That in fact, his parents spent a lot of time, money, and energy trying to fix him. Or that nearly everyone around Auggie was ableist in some way towards him at some point in the book.
In America, I constantly see quotes that go something like this, “Love is seeing his flaws and loving him in spite of them.” This is pretty much how every character approaches Auggie – they love or like him in spite of his deformed face. But really, true love is loving someone because of their flaws. Ideally, we love each other as they are, not as we want them to be. No one is perfect; everyone of has some sort of deformity. Auggie’s deformity was visible, but for most of us, our deformities are on the inside. Maybe we are too judgemental, maybe we are too harsh with other people, maybe we don’t help out when others have needs, maybe we are quick to anger. These are not things to hate in another person, but instead to embrace in them because it is part of who they are. If we as a society would embrace that we are all flawed humans, with great variation, and there is no such thing as normal, the world would be a safer, happier place.
Maybe the point of having all the characters treat Auggie like he was broken and needed to be fixed was Palacio’s way of showing how flawed that view is. But if that was the message, it was lost on me, partly because of how the school only accepted him once they heard about how Auggie was bullied. Aw, poor deformed Auggie, his life is really hard, but it would be so much better if he was normal because then he wouldn’t be bullied. We should be his friend even though we didn’t like him at all when he was just the deformed kid. That kind of patronizing, ableist attitude makes my stomach turn and I was frustrated to no end that this book is held up as the standard for books about deformed or disabled kids.
Outside of ableism, the book was fine. It was kind of nice to get other viewpoints, but it also felt forced in a lot of cases. I didn’t have as big of a deal with Justin getting his own chapter as other people did, but I don’t think it added a whole lot of value. But I didn’t really think a lot of the individual chapters added a lot of value. They all sounded a bit too similar to me.
Wonder was a bit too happily ever after for me, with everything nicely wrapped up in a neat little bow. I expect that some for a book at this age level, but children are resilient enough for there to be challenging situations that don’t wrap up perfectly well. I would have liked to see more grey than the black and white, good or bad, one size fits all story lines.
In the end, this wasn’t a book about Auggie, but instead a book about how other kids dealt with Auggie’s presence, and that was bothersome to me. This should be a book about Auggie and how he feels about a world which treats him as broken and disabled even when he is neither. Auggie says that he’s a normal kid, but he does not act as though he sees himself that way. In fact, there are several times where it seems like Auggie enjoys being treated differently, for example by having his mom prioritize his feelings over his sister’s. There was a lack of consistency in how Auggie talked about himself and how he behaved. What did he truly think and feel and how representative is his story of children in similar situations? I suspect it is not representative, but I cannot be certain. This is why it can be problematic for a person privileged on a topic to write a main character who is not privileged on that topic. It can be hard to step that far out of one’s comfort zone or to find a way to truly understand an experience one does not experience themselves. While I am disabled, I would not presume to know how to write a character like Auggie as my disability is invisible. Also, I became disabled as an adult. I do not have the same experiences as Auggie to be able to write from his perspective and I would not even call my experiences similar enough to feel comfortable writing his story. This is why I am not exactly critiquing the way Auggie’s character was written, though I am critiquing the lack of consistency. While I suspect the depiction of his inner thoughts and feelings are inaccurate based on accounts I’ve read in the anti-ableism movement, I cannot possibly say for certain. That is for someone who is more similar to Auggie to say and I hope one day such a person writes a better story than Wonder about their childhood experiences.
If you want to read a book that will make you feel warm and fuzzy and don’t plan on thinking too critically about how accurate it is, then this is a solid book choice. From that point of view, this was a 3 star read for me. It is definitely over the top and a happily ever after story that will leave you feeling that the world is a good place. But, if you are looking for an accurate depiction of a deformed child, I suggest doing your homework on this book first and then making a decision for yourself whether it fits your needs. From this point of view, this is a 1 star read for me.
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