Wednesday, October 31, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Wonder does what it does well skillfully enough to make nearly any reader stop and take notice. It's a "problem novel" -- maybe even a "message novel" -- that talks about kindness and acceptance and features a severely disfigured child as its central personality, but which manages to keep most of the characters from seeming like puppets or authorial constructs. The excellence of its characterization, as well as the fact that its anti-bullying theme is more than a little timely, seems to be why so many people keep coming back to Wonder as a serious Newbery contender.

I have to give credit where credit is due, and Wonder may feature some of the best "delineation of characters" of any Newbery-eligible book this year. However, it seems to me to have serious structural weaknesses -- serious enough to remove it from awards contention for me.

The book is told from six different perspectives, which gives the reader the chance to see that each person in the story has their own challenges and struggles. However, one of the narrators -- Justin, the boyfriend of the protagonist's sister -- seems much less integrated into the story than the other five. His section is used for an item of plot advancement, but it seems to me to be largely extraneous, moving the focus of the story too far away from its center.

(As a quibble, Justin is a musician whose main interest is in zydeco, which makes it really odd that his instrument is a hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument that isn't used in that style. It also seems like he would know that there's no such thing as "a flatted third on a major chord," since that's just a minor chord.)

More problematic, however, is the fact that, in a book that makes room for so many narrators, Julian, the main antagonist, doesn't get a chance to tell his story. One of the primary thrusts of Wonder is that everyone is struggling with some challenge, and setting a character up as a villain and then denying him a voice dramatically undercuts that. Even if Julian is wrong -- and there's not really any question about that -- he's still a person, and his interactions with his dominating, shrewish mother indicate a possible source of his problems. He's not some abstraction of evil created in a vacuum, and the absence of his voice looms large.

To me, this last point is a fatal flaw. It's so damaging to the theme of the book that I can't overlook it, and I can't support Wonder as a Medalist or as an Honor book. I think R.J. Palacio is an author to watch, and that the book has real merits -- I just feel that the structural and thematic weaknesses take it off of the level of "distinguished contribution to American literature for children."


  1. I read this book a few weeks ago and absolutely loved it, but I hadn't even thought about Julian not getting a voice. That does seem like a major problem. And I definitely agree with you about Justin. He was my least favorite.

    1. When I first read this one, back in the summer, I really liked it too -- I think I gave it four stars on goodreads. As the year has gone on and I've had more time to think about it, it's gone down in my estimation. Rachael mentioned this a while back, but it really is fascinating to see how one's opinion of some books changes, either positively or negatively, with time and discussion.

  2. I think the fact that Justin does not have a chapter is a smart move opens the door for a wonderful conversation with students as to why someone might act that way. It is important to be be kind, because one does not know the burdens other people carry - this hold true for Auggie AND Justin. Life isn't always fair and sometimes it is complicated. I love this book because it makes people think.