Wonder. 2012. R. J. Palacio. New York: Random House. 310 pp. (excluding Appendix)
Genre: Young adult novel
Ages: Grades 4 and up.
“I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” So says 10-year old August (Auggie) Pullman, who longs to be ordinary in the most basic sense: He wants to blend in. He wants other ordinary kids to look at him and not “run away screaming” (p. 3). Is that too much to ask?
Auggie is ordinary in some ways: he loves ice cream, sports, and video games. He loves his family and his dog Daisy. There’s just one problem. Auggie was born with a facial deformity so severe that even after twenty-seven reconstructive surgeries, people find it hard to look at him without turning away. Can anyone (save his immediate family) get beyond Auggie’s appearance to the phenomenal person behind the face? That’s but one of several provocative questions raised in this riveting tale that grabs readers by the lapels from page one. Palacio’s writing rings with voice, and Wonder is enlivened with detail that takes us—like it or not—right back inside middle school happenings.
As the story opens, Auggie (for whom life has never been a cake walk) faces a particularly difficult challenge. He’s been home schooled by his mother all his life; now, his parents (his mother in particular) have decided he should break out into a bigger world, and they have enrolled him in a prestigious private school in Manhattan. At first, Auggie is understandably terrified. What could prove a difficult transition for any student feels to this previously sheltered 10-year-old like a surefire path to public degradation. As we soon discover, however, we underestimate Auggie at our own peril. From that dreaded first day of school to the wonderfully climactic graduation ceremony, we witness an homage to courage—and to kindness—in one of the most memorable coming of age stories in a long while.
Wonder is a book with grit and depth. Some of its characters are unlikeable—and not all undergo magical last-minute transformations, either. Hats off to Palacio for creating a world that is realistic enough to make us cringe at times, while still offering enough silver linings to satisfy our abiding belief in humanity. Auggie is a brilliantly imagined character who gains complexity throughout the book, and it’s a tribute to Palacio’s writing that while we empathize (who hasn’t endured some rough school experiences?) and cheer for him, we never pity him, even during some very dark moments. Instead, we admire his strength and patience, and his skill (that soars far beyond his years) in navigating emotionally choppy waters with a grace unique to his highly individual persona. Would we be as brave? Indeed, this is a book that invites us, repeatedly, to look at our own values and our own behavior. Hopefully, we will like and respect what we see.
In the Classroom
1. Reading. As always, take time to preview the book prior to sharing. It’s an outstanding read-aloud, with alternating moments of heroism, humor, despair, courage, and action. It’s fast-paced, high-interest, and full of variety—some of which comes from the fact that chapters are written in multiple voices. We hear first (and last) from Auggie, but in between we also hear from his sister Olivia and from other students with whom Auggie interacts. Chapters are short enough that you may have time to share several at once. Wonder also makes an outstanding choice for a smaller-group after-school book club.
2. Background. Much of Wonder deals with the rejection of people who look or seem different from ourselves. This is a highly sensitive subject, but one well worth broaching in order to prepare students to think seriously and deeply about Auggie’s experience. You may wish to spend some time discussing exclusion and inclusion in our society—particularly within school environments. Who gets included routinely? Who is excluded? Why do some people reject or avoid socializing with others? What are some of the most common motives for behaving this way? What are some of the forms that such rejection takes? How difficult is it to not go along with exclusion if one’s friends are engaging in this kind of behavior?
3. Opinion pieces. Is exclusion a form of bullying—even if it does not involve physical harm to the person targeted? And is it possible to take a strong personal stand against bullying? Take time to write about this. Since this can be a highly personal topic, you may want to assure students at the outset that they will not need to share what they write unless they feel comfortable doing so. If possible, write a piece of your own to share with the class. After writing, you may wish to discuss the topic of bullying further (see items 15 and 16 below).
4. Central Topic/Theme. What is Wonder’s central message? Is there more than one? Encourage students to write about this, and to share their writing in small groups. Then open the topic to class discussion. Suggestion: You may wish to do this more than once as you share the book together. Wonder is a book of some complexity, and students may discover more than one main theme (relating to, for example, kindness, bullying, friendship, courage, personal change and growth).
5. Organization. Wonder is a narrative, and is written chronologically. But is there more to the organizational structure than that? How much time lapses from the opening chapter through the closing chapter? Why might the author have chosen to encapsulate the story within this particular time frame? Also consider other elements that contribute to the overall organization. The book is divided into chapters, like most novels—but also into parts. Why? (Encourage students to notice that each part is written in a different voice. Also, the book starts out in Auggie’s voice, then returns to that voice at the end. Why is this significant?)
6. Voice/Narrative writing. What challenges does an author face in choosing to write a book in multiple voices? Discuss this. How hard is it for one writer to make different voices all sound authentic? Find out. Encourage students to try writing a two-person narrative in which a story is told from one point of view, then another. Each voice might be heard once—or multiple times. (Note: Students who feel ready to try it might create more than two voices.)
7. Character. The Common Core Standards for Narrative writing suggest that character traits are revealed through situations in which characters make choices—as well as through dialogue. Have students choose a character whose voice is featured in any part of this book. (Possibilities: Auggie, Olivia, Jack, Justin, Summer, Miranda.) Using quotations from the book and/or references to specific situations, analyze that character. What motivates this character? What character traits define him or her? Does this person change through the course of the book, and if so, in what way?
8. Expository writing. One of the book’s characters, Mr. Browne, has a monthly precept, a “life rule” we might say, that he writes on the board for his students. Discuss the concept of a precept: What is it, and how might it influence someone’s life? Review Mr. Browne’s list of precepts (see pages 311 and 312). Do your students have a favorite? Do you? Ask students to write a personal response to one of Mr. Browne’s precepts or to come up with one of their own. Create a class book. You may wish to follow the suggestion of the book and have students write their own postcard precepts (see pages 312 and 313) that they mail to you or to one another. Question: Do all people have precepts that they live by? Where do precepts come from anyway? (Suggestion: Create podcasts for weekly or monthly precepts at your school. Students can take turns writing these.)
9. Argument: philosophical questions. Wonder raises some serious philosophical questions. Following are a few suggestions for questions that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any one of these—or have students pose a question of their own to answer—orally, through a podcast, or in writing:
• Olivia seems happy to escape to high school where her younger brother August is not known and she does not have to be seen with him or explain anything about him. Is she justified in feeling this way, or is it wrong of her?
• At the beginning of the book, Auggie’s parents (particularly his mother) are urging him to take the big step of enrolling in a private school. Is this a good decision on their part?
• Auggie has a number of “friends” in this book. Which person would you consider to be his truest friend? Why? Cite evidence from the book to support your point of view.
• Characters in this book show kindness in a number of different ways. Cite two instances in which characters go out of their way to be “kinder than is necessary” (from the words of Mr. Tushman, pp. 299-300). Use quotations from the book to prove your point.
• At the end of the book, Mr. Tushman encourages the students from Auggie’s class to practice more kindness than they need to. Is this a good precept by which to live one’s life? Is it realistic? Why or why not?
10. Comparison/Contrast. Have any of your students read the book Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (see our Jan 3, 2011 post here on Gurus)? If so, invite them to write a comparative review of the two pieces. What do the two books have in common? (Consider characters, voice, organization, appeal to certain readers, themes, etc.) Are the books different in any important ways that you notice? If so, how? (Note: Encourage students to use quotations from each book to support their points of comparison.)
11. Beginning and ending. The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on beginnings that set up a story or discussion and endings that bring things to resolution. Look carefully at the opening chapter and the final five or six chapters of Wonder. Does the opening set up the story in a way that draws us in and helps define the situation and the main character, August? Was the ending what you expected, and does it bring resolution to the story? Talk about why endings matter so much to us—whether they’re endings of books, TV programs, or films. Have you or your students ever been deeply disappointed by an ending—and if so, when and why? Ask students to consider whether the ending of Wonder is precisely what they would have hoped for—or whether they might have written something different. Some students may wish to create varied endings of their own. (Note: I happen to love this ending, with its emphasis on the importance of kindness. But endings, like most things in literature, are highly personal—and often controversial!)
12. Presentation. Take time to notice the drawings that open each part of the book. What details stand out? What do these drawings tell us? Also notice the quotations that accompany the drawings. Why do you think the author chose to include them? Finally, notice the chapter headings; this writer uses words, not numbers, to define the chapters. Is this, in part, an organizational strategy? How so?
13. Description. Auggie tells us in the opening chapter, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (p. 3). The author withholds any detailed description of Auggie’s face until we are well into the book (see pages 88 and 89). Why might she want to wait? Read this description carefully, and discuss it or write personal responses. It is very vivid and detailed. Does that make it difficult to read? What is our emotional response? What response is the author hoping for? Olivia, the voice in this chapter, asks this question: “When he looks in the mirror, does he see the Auggie everyone else sees?” (p. 89). Is this a question that could be asked of anyone? Perhaps the person anyone sees in the mirror is different from the person others see. What do your students think? Write about this.
14. Analyzing dialogue. Author R. J. Palacio has been praised for the authenticity of the dialogue in her writing. Ask your students to consider whether they agree with this assessment, and if so, to cite examples of dialogue they feel works particularly well. In particular, consider the chapter titled “Letters, Emails, Facebook, Texts” (page 160ff). What does this chapter reveal about the characters involved that we could not learn through straight narrative? Do your students like this narrative technique? Have them create a narrative scene of their own involving two or more characters who communicate through letters, emails, texts, etc. Talk about the challenges involved in writing this way. Some students may wish to “perform” their scenes with partners.
15. Informational writing: bullying. As a class or in small writing groups, do some research on the subject of bullying. Is it on the increase? What forms does it take? Is it exacerbated by social media, which can sometimes make the tormenting of another person more public? What is being done to stop it? (Suggestion: If possible, make personal interviews part of this research. For example, students might speak with a school counselor or psychologist, or with an adult who recalls an experience with bullying that he or she is willing to talk about openly.)
16. Argument: bullying. Following your research on the topic of bullying, invite students to write an argument on the best way(s) to stop or prevent bullying at school. Such arguments should include documented evidence that a particular approach is effective. (Suggestion: Numerous books and articles have been written on this topic. If possible, make some available within your classroom while students are doing their research.)
Coming up on Gurus . . .
In a recent workshop, a teacher raised a very important question: If we are not going to cover students’ writing with corrections, but we DO want to teach conventions, how exactly do we go about that? Just what are the alternatives? Drop by next time and we’ll share some ideas—along with resources that include outstanding conventions lessons! Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.