A Review of R. J. Palacio’s Wonder

Will this book will make me kinder?

Wonder by R. J. Palacio is the first novel in a long time that has made me cry.

Will Schwalbe, author of Books for Living, told me about Palacio’s book in an interview last month. Published in 2012, Wonder is the story of a fifth-grade boy with a disfigured face. Schwalbe says it is well on its way to becoming one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

My own grandson James, who will be 11 tomorrow, had Wonder read aloud to his class of fifth graders here in Cambridge, Mass. James is already wired for empathy, and I look forward to talking with him about the book when he and my daughter Sarah return from school vacation next week.

Fifth grade was my favorite grade in school, because of an inspiring teacher, Sumner Scherer, who first made me think I might be a writer. Mr. Scherer read Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables to us at the end of each day’s classes.

I was a lucky kid who walked to Claypit Hill School in Wayland, Mass., through pine woods and a hilly field. I considered being lousy at sports to be a handicap. But deep down I knew I had little to complain about.

I felt concern and anxiety about a classmate who had been badly injured in a car accident. His name was Nicky. His injuries resulted in a brokenness to his physical appearance. I don’t remember anyone making fun of him.

In Wonder, August “Auggie” Pullman introduces himself by saying “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

The children at Beecher Prep respond to Auggie’s appearance in a wide variety of ways. A girl named Summer sits down with him in the cafeteria the very first day. She and several others tell the story in their own words, in alternating chapters.

I sat with him that first day because I felt sorry for him. That’s all. Here he was, this strange-looking kid in a brand-new school. No one was talking to him. Everyone was staring at him. All the girls at my table were whispering about him. He wasn’t the only new kid at Beecher Prep, but he was the only one everyone was talking about. Julian had nicknamed him the Zombie Kid, and that’s what everyone was calling him.

Auggie’s older sister, Olivia, is one of the wonders of the book. Her love for her brother is real and inspiring. His parents are also heroes for their wise choices and support.

Wonder builds to a dramatic conflict at the Fifth-Grade Nature Retreat. The resolution of the book takes place at the class’s graduation ceremony, and that’s the scene that got me.

I was reading it on a Kindle at my daughter Roo’s home Friday night. Darlene and I were babysitting her two sons, 3 and 1, who were asleep upstairs, visible on the digital monitor. Reading beside me on the couch, Darlene touched my arm when she saw I was crying.

It was a good kind of tears, the sort that washes away old ways of seeing the world.

Mr. Tushman, Beecher Prep’s vice principal, at graduation quotes from a book by J. M. Barrie titled The Little White Bird. Barrie asks:

Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?

That seems doable, doesn’t it? To be a little kinder than necessary? That’s what Summer did, and it made a very big difference.

This is an amazing, potentially transformative book. I am grateful to Will Schwalbe for tipping me off to it. “Reading challenges you to figure out what kind of person you want to be,” Schwalbe writes in his chapter about Wonder in Books for Living.

I like how realistic Schwalbe is about whether even a book as powerful as Wonder really can change people. We can read it, say we love it and then choose not to be kind, he says.

I know he’s right. But in the three days since finishing Wonder, I have not been able to get Auggie Pullman, Summer, and the other kids in the book out of my mind.

At a meeting I was attending on Saturday, a woman in front of me named Alice inadvertently grazed her coffee mug with her shoe. It was starting to fall, and without thinking I reached to right it. The mug had a cover on it, so even if it had fallen it probably wouldn’t have spilled. My very small kindness turned out not to have been necessary.

But as I reached for Alice’s mug, my mind flashed on Mr. Tushman’s exhortation and the kindness of Summer.

That was a good sign, I think.