Wonder, By R J Palacio

A boy who's never been to school, but has something to teach us all

Suzi Feay
Sunday 12 February 2012 01:00 GMT

I imagine that the pitch for Wonder went something along the lines of "does for facial disfigurement what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time did for Asperger syndrome".

Ten-year-old August – Auggie – Pullman has never been to school. A veteran of surgical procedures ("twenty seven since I was born"), he has a "previously unknown type of mandibulofacial dysostosis caused by an autosomal recessive mutation in the TCOF1 gene ... complicated by a hemifacial microsomia". The only night of the year he feels normal is Halloween, because then everyone's wearing a mask, and for two whole years he walked around wearing a toy astronaut's helmet.

Auggie knows all the reactions his appearance causes: the shock, the smirking, the covert glances, the hostility. He has created a safe world for himself in North River Heights, his Manhattan neighbourhood: "On our block, everybody knows me and I know everybody ... I know Mrs Grimaldi, the lady who's always sitting by her window, and the old guy who walks up and down the street whistling like a bird ... and the waitresses at the coffee shop who all call me 'honey' and give me lollipops." But Auggie's parents have decided it's time for him to go to school. Wonder recounts his rocky year as a fifth-grader at high-toned Beecher Prep, told through his words and those of his older sister, Olivia, and their friends.

Four carefully vetted children are appointed as helpers, but this well-intentioned gesture quickly backfires. There's no way round it: Auggie will have to make his own way in the school pecking order. One of the appealing themes of the book is the way children use cultural bric-a-brac to form an identity. Auggie is obsessed with Star Wars, and reflects: "Like, it's okay, I know I'm weird looking, take a look, I don't bite. Hey, the truth is, if a Wookiee started going to school, I'd probably stare a bit!" When he becomes aware that his fellow pupils are shunning him, he has another reference to hand: "I think it's like the Cheese Touch in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The kids in that story were afraid they'd catch the cooties if they touched the old mouldy cheese in the basketball court. At Beecher Prep, I'm the old, mouldy cheese."

All this is harrowing enough. More apparent to an adult reader, perhaps (the book is recommended for readers of 10 and above), are the advantages Auggie receives: the cuddles, the pampering, the non-stop worrying and care he gets from his parents. R J Palacio deftly shows the effects that putting Auggie first have on his sister. In one telling scene, Auggie storms to his bedroom in a giant sulk, makes a cave of his bed coverings and fills it with his toy animals. Much to his surprise, his mother doesn't immediately rush to comfort him. As Olivia yells: "Not everything in the world is about you, Auggie!"

Except for his appearance, Auggie is an ordinary boy. Well, almost – without ever being mawkish, Palacio emphasises his resilience, sense of humour and bravery in the face of endless surgery. I'd defy anyone not to well up when he cries: "Why do I have to be so ugly, Mommy?", and as for the climax, it wreaks emotional havoc. There is a message running through the book, most clearly voiced by an inspirational teacher, that if we were all a little kinder to one another the benefit would be incalculable. To finish it with a firm resolve to be a better person – well, you can't ask much more of any book than that.

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