Monday, 20 October 2014

Reader's Corner: Wonder by R.J Palacio

 
With my job comes a lot of time spent in the school library- some obligatory, but most voluntary! I just find the library such a calming place, plus it's so nice to see kids with their heads in real paper books, and not to see them going square-eyed staring at electronics! I've recently picked out a few teen novels to read as I'm involved in a junior reading group and I've started jotting some ideas here and there for my own first teen book. Then I discovered this GEM of a story by R J Palacio.
  Wonder undeniably lives up to its title. It’s wonderful in terms of its array of realistic, independent and thought-provoking characters, its simplistic, modern style with a Salinger edge- it's heavy in colloquial yet intimate dialogue- and in the journey of its protagonist, Auggie Pullman.
   Auggie is a not-so ordinary ten year old boy who does ordinary things. In his words- he 'eats ice-cream, rides his bike, plays ball and has an Xbox'. He’s a Star Wars fanatic, something uncommon in ten year old boys. He has a nuclear family of four, plus their beloved dog Daisy, a childhood teddy bear named Baboo, which he hides in the closet, and a natural instinct to fit in.
   Except, as the novel’s front cover points out in italics: “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out”. Auggie stands out as an extraordinary child as he was born with a facial deformity, defined in the book as a craniofacial difference. He is considered a medical wonder for his unique, mysterious condition, has had 27 operations, and undergoes regular tests and trials which form part of his everyday life. Arguably the book's introduction, where Auggie in first person tries to justify he is ordinary by listing these ordinary things he does, sets an expectation and a question in the mind of the reader, that of what exactly is ordinary? This essence of the book is returned to again and again as we join Auggie on his way through fifth grade, challenging and moving the reader in so many ways.


As a creative writer, I find it so inspiring that this whole 312 page novel stemmed from a five minute experience Palacio had at a local ice-cream parlour with her two young sons. She told The Telegraph in 2012 that during this trip in New York, her family encountered a girl with what she now knows to be Treacher-Collins syndrome, a rare hereditary condition that affects the facial features yet leaves the child completely normal in every other way. Palacio panicked as she didn't know how her children would react and so she grabbed them and left, though it broke her heart to see the girl's mum's reaction. She describes this scene almost autobiographically in the novel.



The main characters in Wonder
At least some of us will pass extraordinary people every day and react on a whim; out of curiosity, out of discomfort,  guilt, like Palacio did in this case. That reaction will shortly be pushed to the back of our minds, that person forgotten about soon after. The extraordinary person will never forget such reactions, those split seconds. With Wonder, Palacio candidly and poignantly encourages us to think twice about passing judgment on others, sending out the universal message that we are not dissimilar inside as humans, despite our exteriors.


Me with the book cover!
   Palacio tells in the attribution at the back of her book how many readers tell her that by the end of the book they have forgotten Auggie's craniofacial difference. It's true that while I read, I totally lost myself in the story of a group of ten and eleven year old kids having fun, falling out then worrying about who they would sit with in the cafeteria; then spectacularly making up, getting into trouble for minor things such as peeing in a bush and acting as school children do at that age group. It just so happens that amongst these kids is a hero, Auggie, the force which everything revolves around; but for his brilliant personality not his deformity. Saying that, Palacio slips in constant reminders of the hardship suffered by children like Auggie. This book contains the cruellest school scene I have ever, ever read, in the chapter 'The Bleeding Scream' and I genuinely found it hard to read. Almost exactly in the centre of the book, Palacio gives us an alternative narration, a series of letters and emails in which we learn of a parent's sickening view towards Auggie- an abrupt reminder of the undertone of the novel, that of extreme prejudice. Another highlight of the novel is a section told by Auggie's sister's boyfriend Justin, who is described to have 'tics'. Justin is clearly different, as symbolised by the format of his train of thought- all lowercase letters and lacking in punctuation. Justin is a character who has a big impact on Auggie just as Auggie has a big impact on him, yet he also mixes with others. Justin is clearly an extension of Palacio's no-judgement message.
Palacio perfectly combines a weight of poignancy with an equal weight of humour and a lifestyle to empathise with, from clear depictions of family traumas that resonated with me as very close to home, to scenes of pure love. From reading this it is clear that we are meant to discover or remember that everyone is on life's journey together and we must help each other along the way. A book with so much charm, quirky little details, beautiful imagery and a main character you wish you could befriend- a must-read though don't forget the tissues.


A quote featured in Wonder


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