7 March 2013
Review: Wonder by R. J. Palacio
First Line: "I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid."
Wonder is an inspiring, funny and altogether lovely story about people. It's about adults and children, teachers and students, brothers and sisters, boys and girls and friends and bullies. It is written very accessibly (although with a lot of Americanisms) and simply but intelligently and compassionately and won't fail to move you with it's realism about the difficulties of human relationships but also ultimately people's capacity for kindness.
Why I read it: It was already on my to-read list but then I chose it to read aloud with a Year 7 English class I help with once a week.
Who I would recommend it to: Fans of John Green's style of writing and you're looking for an inspiring story full of heart.
In October a teacher asked if he could start bringing his Year 7 English class up to the library once a week on Wednesdays last period to do some reading - I was obviously hugely enthusiastic about this. We did a few weeks of students reading quietly or students reading aloud to us and then the teacher suggested reading a book aloud to them. I am a huge believer in the importance of reading aloud to children of all ages and couldn't believe I hadn't already suggested it to him. Sometimes teachers are nervous about devoting curriculum time to reading to children, especially as students get older and exams become an inevitably bigger focus. It's challenging because if an OFSTED inspector watched a lesson that consisted of reading aloud, it would most likely be heavily criticised as you can't measure the way that children are improving within one lesson, they haven't learnt a new concept and demonstrated understanding of it or produced a piece of work that can be marked. The benefits of reading aloud though are so profound but also not measurable by one-off lesson observations. The groups that I have been reading aloud to with their English teachers are visibly growing in vocabulary, imagination and enthusiasm and love for reading but you only see this when you get to know the children and where they are coming from in their relationship with words and stories.
The group I read Wonder with had hardly any big readers when we started and there was not a lot of enthusiasm for the project when we told them what we were doing. There was a lot of 'reading is boring/difficult/childish' comments but when we sat down in the soft seating area of the library, they were entranced by Wonder. Rowdy and challenging students were sat on cushions just listening and they were laughing together at the funny bits, fascinated together by what Auggie looked like and moved together by the difficulties he faced. I am in Thailand at the moment doing volunteer work, but the class has continued to read Wonder with their teacher and I have been getting regular emails from students telling me what is happening and how they feel - some of the emails are so wonderfully empathetic to the characters and one boy told me 'Wonder is the best book I've ever read'. One girl who has never read a book for pleasure in her life had to be coerced into taking a book home from the library - I recommended My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher. (I'll have to write another post about how light hearted books are not necessarily the best way to attract a non-reader) is now enjoying both Wonder and My Sister and asking for more recommendations.
So, rant about reading aloud aside, Wonder is a, well, wonderful book. Wonder is my favourite, favourite word - I love the sound of it and what it means and this really is a book of wonder - wonder at the complications, difficulties, beauty and strength of human relationships. Palacio very effectively gives us parts from various different characters and really challenges teen readers to rethink judgments they might have initially made. Apart from one awful bully who we don't really get any redeeming features for (it would have been interesting to have a chapter from his perspective) all of our characters have strengths and weaknesses and there are many shades of grey as to what is right and wrong, doing wrong things for right reasons and that 'good' people make mistakes. I found the part from Via, Auggie's sister, particularly beautifully written. It's a very emotive book, it would be a hard-hearted reader who wasn't moved at several points by just how tough it is for Auggie, but also at just how tough it is to grow up and to be a person. But Palacio manages to keep the book uplifting by contrasting these moments with moments of joy and happiness that celebrate how wonderful people can be.
I hope that my students haven't finished this by the time I get back to the UK so I can enjoy reading the ending with them. I would be very surprised not to see this on the Carnegie shortlist when it is announced next week. It entranced my Year 7 class and made them rethink a lot of things, most of all reading and any book that gets non-readers reading is always going to get a big thumbs up from me.