A friend's daughter enrolled in my girls' school in 7th grade and ended up hanging with Lizzie and her group of friends. When my friend mentioned Anne's new crowd to a teacher, the teacher replied, "That's good -- they're all very kind." The choice of words, although true, struck me as an unusual choice. In the world of school social interaction, though, it was high praise indeed.
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, extends the spectrum of kindness and cruelty in the story of a fifth grader attending school for the first time. It's not a story about middle school mean girls, but it's about wanting more kindness from strangers than one often gets.
Auggie was born with massive facial deformities, has gone through 27 surgeries, and still looks far from normal. The description of his face comes out in small details throughout the book, building a full picture of his looks and his personality in parallel. He's a great kid: very brave, very vulnerable, very kid-like. Very observant:I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And 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....My name is August, by the way. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
The book is due to be published next month, but I'm jumping the gun because it keeps kicking around in my thoughts. It's narrated by Auggie and a number of other characters, including his fiercely loving but conflicted older sister, two of her friends, and other fifth graders. One understands the allure of Halloween -- masks! anonymity! -- and the pain of being a freak among one's peers. Some of the kids set a "rule" that anyone who touches Auggie will end up with "The Plague" if they don't wash their hands within 30 seconds. A couple of kids befriend him, and they're the last to hear about it. Other attempts at organized ostracism follow.She had written her name, Ms. Petosa, on the chalkboard. "Everybody find a seat, please. Come in," she said to a couple of kids who had just come in the room. "There's a seat there, and right there."She hadn't noticed me yet."Now, the first thing I want everyone to do is stop talking and . . . "She noticed me.". . . put your backpacks down and quiet down."She had only hesitated for a millionth of a second, but I could tell the moment she saw me. Like I said: I'm used to it by now.
What makes Wonder work so well is that there are several characters whose actions range from simply treating Auggie as a regular kid, to confronting seriously hostile behavior. Yet none of the good people is perfect. Auggie's first true friend betrays him early on and has to win his way back. His sister doesn't tell anyone in her new school about her brother -- she wants to savor an identity free of him. When Auggie and Jack are getting along, they're far from model students and get scolded for acting up. Fifth grade boys get into fights. They cry. The reader gets wrapped up in Auggie's slog through the school year, wanting him to have an easier time, being impressed with how he's growing up. Then there's a horrifying incident with strangers which forces the entire school population to examine their feelings about the weird kid.
The ending is satisfying and impossible to get through dry-eyed. The glow one feels at the end has to do with being glad that ordinary people act with courage and kindness. And it doesn't even feel far-fetched.