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*Wonder* by R.J. Palacio - middle grades book review
by R.J. Palacio
Ages 9-14 320 pages Knopf February 2012 Hardcover    

R. J. Palacio’s first novel for children, Wonder, takes readers on an extraordinary journey in the steps of someone so like ourselves on the inside, but so very different on the outside.

For the first time in his life, August will attend school: fifth grade at Beecher Prep. Until now, August’s mother has taught him at home. August was born with severe congenital defects to his face; with so many surgeries, he could not have possibly attended school until now.

Everybody cannot help but notice and be shocked when they see August, and he knows it. Fortunately, Beecher Prep.’s kind and understanding principal enlists the help of a few students to show August around before school starts. Jack turns out to be his best friend (at least that’s what August thinks), and Julian makes everything worse for August.

With a school-year based chronology, Wonder is told in many voices in eight parts—first by August, then his older sister, Via, and their friends. Adjusting to middle school is difficult, not academically but socially. People naturally avoid August, all except a girl who sits with him at lunch from the beginning and Jack. Other students have even invented a game called “the plague,” and no one wants to ever touch him or they will “catch it.”

Halloween is August’s favorite holiday: everyone is in a mask, so it is the only time when August can blend in with the crowd. Coming to school in a costume that he had not originally planned, August overhears Jack tell some other students that the only reason he is friends with August is because the principal told him to be and that the teachers have put them together in every class. Devastated, August feigns illness and goes home.

With an interesting change in narrator, Via tells another side to August’s story. Ever since August was born, her family life has revolved around August. Via has grown up pretty much on her own; August needed almost all of her parents’ attention because of the surgeries, homeschooling, everything. High school is a challenge for Via, as it is for all teens. Her friends have changed, and Via feels like she is on her own. When she earns a part in the school play, she doesn’t even want to tell her parents. If they come, everyone will know about August.

The other voices continue the story from unique points of view. When August returns to school and ignores Jack, he doesn’t know what has happened. Jack misses August. He has come to know the real August, the person inside, and he misses him. Finally, Jack finds out why August is so mad, and the boys reconcile. Then many of the boys turn against Jack. The cruelty climaxes at the end of the school year, when the boys confront some kids from another school, and people are hurt. From the ashes of this event, other boys from his class come to August’s defense, and he learns that he has established a special place in the lives of more kids than he thought.

Written in very short (one to three-page) chapters, Wonder is accessible to even reluctant readers. Despite being a character who is so physically different than almost any child, August is actually a character that many children with identify with. Many of his worries are the same that any child faces in middle school : making friends, changing classes, where to sit during lunch, etc. This book is extraordinary in that it takes that connection and moves it to another level, inside the mind of a person whose situation is far more difficult.

Readers will not only sympathize with August, but will grow to cheer for and want him to thrive. Perhaps, after reading this book, readers will find the compassion to reach out to other children who are different in some way and realize that we are all very much the same inside. Highly recommended.
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  Kristine Wildner/2012 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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