Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: Wonder by RJ Palacio

This book centers around 10-year-old main character, August Pullman, who was born with "something similar to Treacher Collins Syndrome" according to the author.  Auggie has been homeschooled since Kindergarten, and has done well.  He's smart and sweet, if a bit sheltered.


The first 20% of this book (I read on Kindle, so all I had to go by were percentages) was fantastic.  This was all from Auggie's perspective and it felt authentic. His perspective felt so true to life for me (as that kid who was different growing up.)  The stares and reactions he endured felt real.  I loved his closeness with his parents.  I loved his parents as characters, especially his mom, who felt especially real to me.  And did I mention?  Auggie has the sweetest old dog. 

Auggie does okay in school but is super isolated and sad.  Kids tease him and no one will touch him.  Toward the end of 20%, August goes to school around Halloween, dressed differently than he planned to be - as something called The Bleeding Scream - covered from head to toe.  His friend (one of two that he has made thus far) does not recognize Auggie because he's not in the Star Wars costume he planned to wear.
Because of this, Auggie is just feet away when Jack says: "If I looked like Auggie, I'd kill myself," and laughs, with a bunch of kids who bully Auggie.

And at this point?  The POV switches and we get 5 other perspectives for the next 60% of the book. 


We hear from Auggie's sister who talks about how hard it is on her to have Auggie for a brother.  (The author also somehow misspells trach "trache" and says this was in Auggie's don't go there...)  Auggie's sister and her friends used to dress him up when they were young.  Auggie loved it.  The girls all thought Auggie looked like E.T...  (I know kids can be cruel but come on.  He's a child, not an alien.)

Auggie's sis has started at a new high school and no one knows about him there.  When she auditions for the school play and gets the part of understudy for the lead, she deliberately does not tell her parents about the show because they will bring Auggie.  When they do find out, Dad offers to come and Mom says she will stay home with Auggie.

Via throws a fit that both her parents will not come to her play.  Auggie asks: "Can I come?" and Via insists: "No!  You won't like it!" 

Auggie, by now, has caught on that his family is not telling him something and demands to know what they're lying to him about.  He screams:  "Tell me!  I'm not r*t*r*d*d!"  (The author has justified her choice to include this word because "That's how kids talk.")  I had heard her quote before I read the book and I assumed one of the other characters said it, not the main character with Not Treacher Collins Syndrome.)  A kid with his background would likely know - more so than the average kid - how much that word hurts.  I found it hard to believe he would use it, and offensive that the author felt the need to include it.  Especially in a children's book.

Auggie runs to his room, crying, and waits for his mom to come and follow up with him, which she does, usually.  He waits a half hour.  And then Via comes to his room and tells him he has to come quick, because their dog, Daisy is really sick and has to go to the vet.  Their parents don't think Daisy will live.  Auggie and Via have to say goodbye.

The whole fight becomes a nonissue as the kids hug and cry and say it was silly to fight.


We heard from Justin, Via's boyfriend, who really did not do much except function as a plot device.  I have a sneaking suspicion he was only included because he had Tourette's Syndrome.

We heard from Summer - one of Auggie's few friends at school - how she sat with him at lunch the first day "because she felt bad for him."

We heard from Jack, who was singled out by the principal as a "nice kid" to show Auggie around, before school started.  We learn Jack balked at this initially, because when his mom told him about Auggie, Jack knew who he was.  Because Jack, his little brother and their nanny had seen Auggie out eating ice cream the previous year.  He panicked.  His little brother made a rude comment.  And the nanny gathered them up to walk away as fast as she could and then reprimanded them all - herself included - for how horribly they reacted.  Jack and his little brother rudely describe Auggie's face and Jack agrees to help him only because he feels guilty.

And we hear from Miranda, Via's former best friend, who has the lead in the high school play, but fakes sick when she realizes Auggie's in the audience, so that Via can have the lead.  She has known Auggie since he was little, and even gave him an astronaut helmet which he wore every time he went out in public for two years.  But Miranda sacrificing her part for Via (when they are not even friends anymore) just felt pitying to me.


Auggie gets hearing aids and is self conscious about wearing them.  (I did like this aspect!)  But his sister thinks that with a face like his, hearing aids should be the least of his problems... :(

Eventually, Jack punches a kid for calling Auggie a freak, and Jack and Auggie are somehow friends again???  (Even though if a friend said they'd rather die than be like me, that'd pretty much be the end of the friendship, even if we  were only ten.)

Punched Kid's mom makes a big stink.  She emails the principal and tells him that she thinks the "pressure" and the "burden" of being friends with the "special needs boy" is too much  and the "regular kids" should not have to deal with it.  She also demands to know how Auggie even got into "their school" since it is not "inclusive."

The principal writes back, but so misses the point of everything when he insists to Punched Kid's mom that "Auggie does not have special needs.  He is not handicapped or disabled in any way."  (Except that if you're born with a condition that means you were trached and have had multiple surgeries, that affects your hearing and your ability to eat?  That counts as a disability and the principal is not helping by erasing Auggie's.  He does very little to address Punched Kid's mom's ableism.  (Even the kids at school know that she photo shopped Auggie out of he class picture for herself and some of the other moms...)

Meanwhile, things haven't changed a whole lot on the school front for Auggie.  He is still pretty isolated and kids put mean notes in his locker calling him an orc.


Then it's time for the class trip to the nature reserve.  Auggie has a lot of fun for the first two days.  On the third night, Jack has to go pee, and there is somehow a line (in the boys' bathroom???) so Jack and Auggie go to the woods (off limits) to pee.

Some 7th graders from another school find them and start being horrible to Auggie about his face.  They won't let Jack or Auggie leave.  Shove him down where he gets hurt and starts bleeding.  His sweatshirt is nearly torn in half.  Some other 5th graders (former bullies) hear the commotion and somehow decide to step in and protect Auggie and Jack.  They all manage to get away.  They are hiding out in a cornfield when Auggie realizes he doesn't have his hearing aids.

The kids try to search in the dark but it is no use.  Auggie starts crying (sobbing) he is so hurt, so scared.  And because of his mom's warning that he shouldn't swim with his hearing aids on because they cost a lot of money.  He is sure he will be in trouble.

They never find his hearing aids.

Not until days later when they are discovered.  One of the 7th graders from another school that beat up Auggie broke his hearing aids and kept them in his locker.)  The principal asks if Auggie wants to press charges.  Auggie says no, because the bully "will never learn," and he is "getting new hearing aids anyway."  The principal urges him to talk to his parents, but this is never followed up on.

All the kids in school have heard the rumor of the big 5th graders coming to Auggie's aid. Suddenly, Auggie is like the 5th grade mascot. The child everybody says hi to now that he has been so hurt, and is so vulnerable without hearing aids when they previously made it their mission to avoid touching him for fear of catching The Plague.  When they called him a freak and ignored him.  It makes little if any sense to me why elementary aged kids - and former bullies at that - would step to fight even bigger kids when a kid they didn't care about was in danger.

Honestly, this aspect was the most upsetting: how brutally Auggie was assaulted and how that somehow made him desirable to other kids.  

And it felt like a huge miss (and likely an oversight due to being a nondisabled author) that this issue Auggie's adaptive equipment being stolen and broken was never properly addressed.  It's alluded to that Auggie feels out of sorts without his hearing aids, but he is mostly okay because he is "getting new ones."  

But getting new adaptive equipment is not as easy as going to the store and getting a thing you need.  The process takes months, likely especially for Auggie, because his hearing aids needed to be custom-fitted for his ears.  There is no mention of any actual punishment for the kid who did this to Auggie.  So he walks around for the last few days of 5th grade hearing the ocean in his ears.


On his way to 5th grade graduation, Auggie's dad casually tells him that he threw Auggie's astronaut helmet out.  Auggie is stunned and angry.  He wore this out in public for two years straight.  It made him feel safe.  Protected from people's stares.

His dad is clearly not expecting Auggie to be so upset and reasons that "I just missed seeing your face."

Again, it's obvious Dad was not trying to be malicious here, but this is where a conversation, or a series of conversations would have been appropriate.  

Think about it.  If somebody took something that you used every day, that you loved and relied on to keep you safe in the world?  And they threw it away?  That would be a huge violation.  Auggie gets over this pretty quickly, though,  (More quickly than I know I would) and simply asks his dad to "please not throw anything else of mine away without asking me first."

But Dad already has done that.

So who's to say he'll do anything differently in the future?

Again, this feels like a miss due to the author being nondisabled.  Because a parent doing something like this did not strike me as "no big deal."  It struck me as a pretty big one.  Not something that a kid would just get over in a minute.


Once at graduation, there is an award ceremony.  And while some kids earn gold, silver and bronze medals for academics or sports, Auggie inexplicably earns the last award of the day.

What's it for?

Well, no one really knows.

It might be for "being courageous".  It might be for "being a good friend."  It might be for "being of good character."  But it was clear (to Auggie and to me) that this was one of those awards that's given out to the poor, tragic disabled kid, who must have a really hard life.

I hated these types of awards.  Most disabled kids and adults I know hate them, too.  But Auggie says, "If they want to give me an award for being me, that's fine!"  And, "It's like the people you see sometimes and you can't imagine what it's like to be them.  Whether it's somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can't talk.  Only I know I'm that person to other people.  Maybe to every single person in this whole auditorium."

It's clear that Auggie's perspective is being written by someone who is not like him.  Because he is being framed as the "other" here.  The "outsider".  And very rarely if ever do children readily accept getting overt attention for something like a disability.  Because the attention they're used to getting for it?  Is not positive.  Plus, being disabled is not an achievement.  

Auggie did not work toward a goal over time and he did not see his hard work pay off in any way that would have merited this particular award.  (I could see him earning an academic award, but instead the author made the choice that he earn the Inspirational Award.)

To finish?  The boy who has always been uncomfortable in crowds and having his picture taken, goes up proudly and smiles, taking the award he knows he did nothing to earn.  He poses for tons of pictures for his new "friends" who love him as a mascot.  As someone to pity.  But don't really know him at all.


The moral of the story is simple: When you can choose to be anything, choose to be kind.

There is nothing inherently wrong with kindness.  Except that when you have a disability, the line between kindness and pity blurs severely.  People see someone with a craniofacial condition, or another visible disability and their inclination is that we need them to be overly nice to us because our life is just so hard.

So, instead I challenge you:  Choose dignity.  Choose respect.  Choose to get to know the person in front of you before making a snap judgment about how much they suffer.

Because uninformed disability attitudes harm us more than our disabilities ever will.