Wonder is written by RJ Palacio and I've devoured it in a day. (There may be spoilers in this, so read on with that in mind.)
Wonder is a fictional children's book about August (Auggie) Pullman, a young boy born with a facial difference. He's got a genetic condition which affects his facial structure and his hearing. RJ Palacio was inspired to write this book after an encounter she had with her sons and a little girl with a visible difference. As a reader with a visible difference, I will say that it's very well researched. It could well be an account from an actual person.
On the first page, Auggie says:
"I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking is probably worse."
We never know what Auggie looks like but we get an idea from how he's treated.
Wonder documents his first year in mainstream school - the challenges of making new friends and fitting in. The descriptions of being a primary school student who looks different brought back many memories for me - it's interesting reading it from a young character's perspective when I've experienced similar. Auggie is teased, excluded (some of the other students invented a game called The Plague, where they believe if they touch Auggie they'll catch something), and physically bullied. He has a few genuine close friends but it takes a while to feel accepted.
Like when I read Robert Hoge's Ugly, I felt such great empathy to the point of tears and elation when reading about facial difference.
The things that I identified with the most were:
- the way kids (and even young adults)think it's uncool to hang out with people who look different.
- the impact a visible difference has on those who love us.
- that someone else's appearance is a point of conversation. All the characters talked about Auggie's appearance and they were asked about it by others too.
- the good people outweigh the nasty people thousandfold.
- the way Auggie was adored by his parents. They only ever wanted the best for him and showed him so much love. Just like mine do.
I also realised just how many interactions I've had (and I'm sure my parents and teachers and perhaps managers have had) that have been prefaced with an explanation of my appearance.
Wonder is from a number of characters' perspectives - the other characters all talk about the impact of being around someone with a visible difference. Their honesty made me wonder whether I've ever been a burden to be around. I thought back to a time where a group photo was organised for a farewell. Everybody was called for the photo except me. It may have been an innocent oversight but I genuinely worried that they had excluded me because they didn't want me in the photo, that my face draw questions just like in person.
Auggie (and the other characters) observes the way people react when they first meet him. He's gotten used to it. And he has had to mentally prepare for meeting new people. There's the uncomfortable silence, the focus anywhere but his face, the open questions, the rude shocked reactions and the fear. It's the fearful reactions towards my face that sadden me the most - people gasping, children hiding their faces and yelling that they don't want to look at me. I hate it. I wish the attention could be diverted, because when a child is vocal about not wanting to look at me, the people around us stare at me.
There's a paragraph from Justin, the boyfriend of Auggie's sister Olivia:
"The universe was was not kind to Auggie Pullman. What did that little kid ever do to deserve his sentence?...So doesn't that make the universe a giant lottery then? You purchase a ticket when you're born. And it's all just random whether you get a good ticket or bad ticket. It's all just luck."
The sentence that Auggie has - being treated cruelly because of his appearance for his whole life - made me think about how society places importance on the physical appearance and that outsiders cope with an individual's visible difference worse than the individual. There seems to be so much discomfort, avoidance and exclusion, perhaps because of the sense of value outsiders place on their own appearances. Even the students' parents were uncomfortable by Auggie's appearance.
After Auggie is physically attacked by a group of older students, he asks his Mum:
"Am I always going to have to worry about jerks like that? Like when I grow up, is it always young to be like this?"
His Mum took a while to answer. When she did. She said there will always be jerks in the world but she whole-heartedly believes there are more good people in the world who will look out for and stand up for Auggie. As Auggie (and I) experienced, there is a pack mentality with bullying, there is also fortunately a pack mentality for kindness.
Courtney recently read the book too, and she said the book made her fear for Brenna's future. In a comment, I said to her don't be too disheartened for the future - especially when this is fiction and you've connected with so many real stories of people with Ichthyosis. Life will be difficult but it will be ok :)
Friends have told me how wonderful they thought Wonder is. One friend said it's on her son's curriculum. That Wonder is getting adults and children talking about visible difference is a great thing. It inspires empathy and kindness and gives a really accurate account of what it's like to live with a visible difference. There are some profound precepts in the book - showing how broadly young people think.
I would have loved Wonder to have been on the school library shelves when I was little. There was no literary role model with a visible difference when I was at school. Kids are very lucky to have Auggie now.
Rick gave me this book in confidence that I'd pass it onto another friend. I sure will. Wonder shares such an important message.
(RJ Palacio has since released a companion book, from the perspective of Julian, Auggie's main bully. It's available as an ebook on Amazon.)