Friday 28 February 2020

#CBR12 Book 9: "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio

Page count: 410 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
August Pullman wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. He does ordinary things. He eats ice cream. He plays on his Xbox. He feels ordinary - inside.

But Auggie is far from ordinary. Ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. Ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go.

Born with a terrible facial abnormality, Auggie has been home-schooled by his parents his whole life, in an attempt to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Now, for the first time, he's being sent to a real school - and he's dreading it. All he wants is to be accepted - but can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, underneath it all?

This book has been on my TBR list for years and years, but this semester, we're teaching the book in 9th grade English, and I can't very well teach the kids a book I haven't read myself. So I spent a pleasant weekend in January reading it, and can see why it's gained such popularity and critical acclaim. It's a book that deals with a lot of important subjects, like living with a deformity, both personally or as a family member, bullying, friendship, loneliness and otherness. While August is the main character of the book and the first POV character we meet, there are also sections where other people who interact with him, his sister Via (Olivia), her boyfriend Justin, Auggie's friends Jack and Summer. We get to see not only how Auggie perceives the world and the way people treat him and interact with him, but also how it affects those around him.

This is a middle-grade book, so it's not like the characterisations of all the various people we meet are terribly deep, nuanced and subtle. While a lot of difficult topics are covered, I find I have to agree with some of the reviews I've seen, that point out that some of the ways in which the book approaches serious matters is a bit simplistic and not necessarily as nuanced as one might have wished. Because the POV characters are children, some of their thoughts and observations are a bit naive.

I watched the movie adaptation of this on a plane a while back now, can't remember exactly when, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Pullman family in the book is a lot more diverse than the movie's casting suggests. Julia Roberts is a good actress, but she doesn't exactly look Brazilian. One thing I really liked about the movie, which I was surprised to discover isn't in the book, is the focus on August's mother, who has put much of her life on hold to take care of her son in between his many surgeries, and homeschooling him until he's old enough to finally start going to a real school. In the movie, she starts working on her degree again and seems to re-visit her old career as a children's book illustrator, while in the book, it's unclear what she does with her time once August goes to school. Apart from worrying about her children (and Via mostly feels ignored by her), she doesn't seem to have much of a role, which is a bit sad.

I always try to read the source material before watching the TV or movie adaptation, but in this case, I watched the movie first. As far as I could tell, the movie (despite its somewhat white-washed casting) does a good job of adapting the book, and as I mentioned before, make some interesting changes that give at least Auggie's mother more of a presence and personality. Once the kids have actually managed to complete their reading, we'll probably watch the movie again. It will be interesting to see what I think about it then.

All in all, I would say this is a good book, and it works very well as something to use in school, as there are so many subjects that are relevant to the pupils' lives that we can discuss. I think it's a good book, if not necessarily great. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really not a huge fan of the rather abstract cover for this book. One of the reasons it took me so many years to actually read this book is that I thought the cover looked rather bland and non-descript. There was nothing there to excite me. I get that portraying Auggie's face was going to be almost impossible, but this is one of the rare instances where I almost prefer the movie tie-in cover, which has the little boy playing August wearing the big space helmet and covering up his tragically deformed face.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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