R. J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, has inspired many communities to “choose kind,” and we know our libraries have often led the way in developing programs and hosting events around this movement. On November 17, Wonder will come to the big screen in cities across the country, which will certainly result in a renewed interest in “choosing kind.” In the article that follows, Gary Zingher talks about Wonder and provides some suggestions for projects for the library or the classroom.
The eloquent young adult book Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, offers extraordinary gifts to its readers. It provides complex, layered characters; encourages empathy; and raises questions about bully behavior and collective intolerance.
If I found a magic lamp… I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing… (Palacio 2012).
Auggie, the remarkable ten-year-old in this novel, has a gentle disposition and compassionate core. He is curious, loyal, witty, a terrific listener, picks up on things quickly, and demonstrates delight in all aspects of Star Wars, especially the Wookiees. He even wears a Padawan braid, symbol of the Jedi apprentice.
There is a pureness about him—a capacity for awe. He immerses himself in fantasy books and loves where stories take him. Although he is mostly involved with adults, he never seems precocious.
Having Auggie Pullman as a pal could definitely be enriching, because he would bring so much to the friendship. But now that he is entering fifth grade, after being home-schooled, he may find that he will be ostracized. And this makes Auggie nervous—wishing fiercely that he were invisible. If only he didn’t have such a freakish face and distorted features. He has been dealing with people’s extreme reactions since the day he was born.
A farting nurse
A fainting doctor
Looking like E.T.’s second cousin,
Auggie Pullman emerges.
A million medical procedures
Genetic disaster (Palacio 2012).
Auggie describes himself as a boy with “punched-in” cheeks and “eyes that came down too far.” He knows because the way his jaw is aligned that many find him disgusting when he chews his food.
I eat like a tortoise, if you ever see a tortoise eating. Like some prehistoric swamp thing (Palacio 2012).
Because his facial deformities are so pronounced, Auggie fears he will be seen as a carnival sideshow or, even worse, the main event, when he goes out into the world. This is why Auggie, for years, loved wearing his astronaut helmet. It camouflaged and shielded him, and served as his security object. And he especially loved Halloween, because he could be out there in the night, anonymously, with no one cringing when he walked close by. In some wondrous way, he felt part of something, connecting with a whole community of revelers.
Auggie’s protective parents and older sister, Via, have created a world for Auggie that is full of supports and comforting rituals—bedtime tuck-ins, being called Auggie Doggie by his dad, getting licked by Daisy, his pooch. The family’s warm, affectionate interplay contributes to Auggie’s healing after each of his surgeries.
Auggie’s mother is his day-to-day teacher/advocate/nurturer. She realizes he needs to become more independent, but vacillates about letting him go. And Auggie’s father is the tone-setter, infusing his infectious humor and clever wordplay into the family dynamic. Imagine the mileage he gets when he finds out Auggie’s new principal will be Mr.Tushman, and all the jokes that follow.
Via, now a teen-ager, accepts that Auggie’s needs come first. She hates to talk about most of her own personal needs, because Auggie’s struggles are so profound. Many times she has seen him hospitalized, looking fragile, and attached to all sorts of tubes and IVs.
August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun…. I’m used to the way this universe works. I’ve never minded it because it’s all I’ve ever known (Palacio 2012).
Entering the Social Arena
How does anyone prepare for middle school, where the need for peer approval is so intense? Will the transition be smooth, or will it seem for some like stepping into a huge arena, waiting for the lions, and, all the while, feeling small and unprotected? For Auggie, it entails leaving his loving, insular world and operating in an unknown setting with its unknown structure and rules.
When he visits Beecher Prep for the first time for his personal orientation, he can feel the whole emotional spectrum. If only he had some kind of talisman, perhaps a magic compass that would help him find the best way to get from point A to point B without having to startle anyone. It turns out that the administrators are thoughtful and welcoming, and have arranged a tour of the school led by a select group of students.
The Blatant Bully
Ironically, as the tour progresses, one of the tour guides, Julian, reveals a sarcastic tone and makes snide, undercutting remarks. He is insinuating and condescending—a two-faced guy, extra polite with grownups, and poisonous with certain peers. The moment he takes charge, Auggie feels apprehensive and guarded.
“What’s the deal with your face? I mean were you in a fire or something?” Julian asks. His question may be direct and reflect what the other two are thinking, but he asks it only to embarrass Auggie.
From that point on, Julian, having found such an easy target, assumes the role of chief tormenter. He knows how to manufacture situations that make Auggie uncomfortable, and he knows how to wield power, intimidate, and put pressure on others to join in.
The Collective Bully
But even without Julian, the innate fear of being left out pushes many students to be insensitive and hurtful. Somehow they are able to dehumanize Auggie as though he hasn’t any feelings. They whisper behind Auggie’s back, speculating about how he got that way. They giggle; they point him out; they call him names.
Rat Boy. Freak. Monster. Freddy Krueger. Gross-out. Lizard face. Mutant. I know the names they call me. I’ve been in enough playgrounds to know kids can be mean… (Palacio 2012).
Fueled by all the gossip, these students even make a game of not brushing against him, so they won’t catch the Plague. As realistic as Auggie is, such acts of callousness can still catch him off guard.
Obviously, some students are conflicted by what they observe, but are not sure how to handle things, so they simply go along with how things are. They worry if they don’t follow the lead of a powerful bully like Julian, they, too, could become singled-out. Others, perhaps insecure about their own body images, want to be seen as cool or popular, get invited to the right parties, rank higher in the social hierarchy.
For Auggie, the beginning of school is wrenching—from being labeled the Zombie Kid (a name thought up by Julian), to having to be in the class picture and seeing the photographer almost freak out. Still, Auggie understands the reactions of others.
…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 the school, all of a sudden, I’d be curious. I’d probably stare a bit! (Palacio 2012).
On the positive side, two students immediately reach out to Auggie. One of the girls, Summer, feels sorry for him and joins him at lunch when she sees he is sitting alone. And one of his tour guides, Jack, who has been asked by Mr. Tushman to help Auggie, works hard to be supportive.
As these two sets of friendships evolve, both Summer and Jack begin to see the treasure that Auggie is—how relaxed they feel around him, and how much they value his perceptions and self-effacing humor.
With Auggie, Summer has someone to play Four-Square, work on social studies projects, and explore philosophical questions such as what happens after you die. She, too, can identify with feeling different, since she is both fatherless and bi-racial.
With Auggie, Jack can banter, joke around, share running classroom commentaries. And the two are so in sync that they see humor in everything, and are constantly cracking up.
Are you always going to look this way, August? I mean, can’t you get plastic surgery or something?
I smiled and pointed to my face. “Hello? This is after plastic surgery!” (Palacio 2012).
But an incident occurs that tears at their friendship. Ironically, on Halloween, when Auggie is feeling exuberant, he overhears Jack making negative remarks about him to Julian. He is crushed and betrayed and sickened. Nothing could have hurt him more.
Days later, when Jack realizes that Auggie had heard this conversation, he knows he has dishonored Auggie, succumbed to Julian’s pressure, and has said words that he really didn’t mean. Now he understands why Auggie has pulled away from him, and he is not sure how to regain his trust.
The Power of Auggie
Readers who enter this novel will be moved by Auggie’s journey. They will learn what a true catalyst Auggie is, helping change the attitude of his peers, and making his school a more inclusive and tolerant place.
The defeats and diminishing moments are numerous—being embarrassed in dance class when girls don’t want to partner with him, finding ugly, threatening notes in his locker, getting pulled into a fifth-grade boys’ conflict in which he and Jack are given the silent treatment, getting roughed up by 7th graders from another school during a movie night at the Nature Retreat.
But there are triumphs as well. And Auggie, by simply hanging in, starts to earn the respect of others who begin to recognize his grace and resilience, and catch on to his humor. Also, school provides him with enormous stimulation whether learning about precepts and how they can guide you, collaborating with Jack on their Spud Lamp science project, or hiking at the Nature Retreat, and taking in the wonder and poetry of the woods.
When Auggie receives a special medal at the end of the graduation ceremony from a “choked-up” Mr. Tushman, he is totally caught off-guard. The award, honoring abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, has to do with the “nature of one’s kindness, the power of one’s friendship, the test of one’s character, the strength of one’s courage” (Palacio 2012).
Buoyed by the cheers of the crowd, the high-fives, the sense of fellowship, the little remarks that he hears (“Woo-hoo, little dude!”), Auggie rises and walks toward the stage.
Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world (Auggie’s original precept) (Palacio 2012).
To extend Wonder, students may wish to develop one of the following activities:
- Select a precept, explaining its source, and why they chose it, or come up with one that is original.
- Through writing, describe the year from Julian’s point of view, and why he is so consumed with tormenting Auggie.
- Create an Auggie mobile or banner that displays some of the key symbols of Auggie’s year.
- In a small group, discuss how Auggie fares his first time away from home at the Nature Retreat— what he enjoys, what he struggles with, and, despite the ugly incident that happens, how he emerges as a hero, with his classmates rallying around him. What are some other turning points in this novel?
Further Reading for SLC Subscribers:
“From Wonder to Social Justice: How One Book Changed a Community” by Angela Hartman
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About the Author
Gary Zingher, previously the library media specialist at Corlears School in New York City and Imagination Consultant at the Children’s Workshop in New York City, is the author of At the Pirate Academy (ALA, 1990) and Theme Play: Exciting Young Imaginations (Libraries Unlimited, 2006). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org