Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Monday, February 24th, 2014 at 8:17 pm

August Pullman has only ever been homeschooled, with only a few friends outside of his family. So when his parents decide it’s a good idea to send him to a local private middle school for fifth grade (go figure), he’s understandably nervous.

Except August isn’t just nervous because he’s a sheltered homeschooler. He’s worried because…well, his face…

August was born with a rare genetic anomaly (never given the name Treacher-Collins in the book, but that’s what it is) that resulted in a slew of “craniofacial abnormalities”. That’s the nice way to say it.

Most kids just call him “freak”.

My church’s book club selected this book for their February discussion, so Daniel and I listened to an audio version on our way up to and back down from Lincoln this last weekend.

Let me tell you first that the women in the bookclub were almost unanimous in loving this book. I felt a bit like a sore thumb, as the newest member of the group (it was my first discussion with them) and as one who just wasn’t crazy about Wonder.

It was a nice story. It was cute. It was the first book I’ve read in which the main character had craniofacial abnormalities. But it wasn’t great.

The story was told from the perspective of a half dozen kids, alternating narrators every few chapters (with a bit of overlap on key scenes). I liked seeing from multiple limited viewpoints. But the kids all sounded alike (that is, there wasn’t anything in the writing to make them different–the voice actors were VERY different.) A couple of high schoolers who gave their perspectives added elements I didn’t like, that I thought were too mature for a novel about a fifth grader.

Furthermore, I felt like both the story and the characters were there to serve a moral. The author was trying to make a point first and the story was just there to make that point.

I feel bad, writing such a negative sounding review. So many others loved this book–and I concede that it’s not a bad book.

But my perspective is likely clouded by my experience reading Tony Abbott’s Firegirl (link to my review). Like Wonder, Firegirl is a middle grade novel about a child with a “deformed” face. Both are told from a child’s perspective. Both have a moral of sorts. But Firegirl outperforms Wonder in every way (assuming my memory of Firegirl is accurate.)

Firegirl is very suitable for a middle grade audience, with little besides necessary discomfort with the topic to give any pause. Firegirl has dynamic, well-formed characters. And Firegirl doesn’t make obsessive mention of popular culture, making it suitable for more than just the next two years (I got so frustrated with the “product placement” in Wonder. Just off the top of my head, we’ve got mention of an iMac, an X-box 360, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Star Wars, some brand name jacket/hoodie, and a cartoon I didn’t recognize. And that’s with me not being a detail person–especially not when listening versus actually reading.)

So, yeah. Um.

Read Firegirl.


Rating: 3 stars
Category: Middle Grade Fiction
Synopsis: Fifth Grade August Pullman, whose face is disfigured by a rare congenital condition, goes to school with other kids for the first time.
Recommendation: Clearly not my favorite book. It wasn’t awful, but Tony Abbott’s Firegirl did a much better job with a similar story.

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Reader Comments (2):

  1. Barbara H. says:

    I wonder why authors would use so many popular culture references that are going to limit its relevance to future generations – maybe they’re going for multiple sales now rather than trying to write something enduring, which I think makes for a lack of depth.

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