Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Wonder"


              
 
  It isn’t easy being a kid.  As a teacher, I think I get that in a way that I haven’t since I was a child myself.  If I had children, I know I would see it in them, too.  I don’t yet, but I do get to witness the lives of fourth graders on a daily basis.  The lives of nine, ten, and eleven year olds may at times seem so simple to us, and yet the battles they are facing are the biggest thing in their lives.  Children have real battles to deal with, the biggest of which just may be, “How in the world do I fit in?”  The question is hard enough for your average kid.  For a child like our protagonist in Wonder, it becomes less of a question and more of a desperate plea, a hope to just be accepted in this world.

                R. J. Palacio’s debut novel Wonder (published 2012) introduces us to August Pullman.  Instead of giving us a paragraph and a half that describes the character’s looks before moving on to the central plot, what we know about him is scattered throughout.  August’s look are central to the story line.  August himself does not even want to tell us what he looks like, because he says, “I won’t describe what I look like.  Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”  Born with a rare genetic disorder that has left him severely disfigured (although I hate to even say that about Auggie, I love him so much), we are only given glimpses of the way he looks as facts seep out through the other characters and through Auggie’s experiences.  When he has lunch on the first day of school, we find out that he eats differently.  He has a clef palate, had to have jaw-alignment surgery, had hip bone put into his chin, and has a hole in his mouth.  August says, “I eat like a tortoise, if you’ve ever seen a tortoise eating.  Like some prehistoric swamp thing.”  August has to get hearing aids, and they have to put a band around his head because he doesn’t have outer ears.  Through the story, we begin to get an image of this ten-year old boy named August Pullman.   A boy who is so complex and wonderful aside from his appearance, I have just done what everyone has done his whole life.  Instead of telling you his story, I focused on what he looks like.  We can’t ignore his appearance, but like the characters in the book, we learn to accept August for his he is, and see to the ordinary boy that lies behind the face.

                In this story, August Pullman goes to school for the first time.  He is used to the stares from other people about his face, but he isn’t used to so many other children.  Entering fifth grade at Beecher Prep, August doesn’t know what to expect.  Luckily, there are a few children who are nice to him, like Jack Will and Summer.  However many children are nice to him, though, there are even more who are mean or cruel.  One boy, Julian, constantly picks on August, asking him if he was in a fire or if he is Darth Sidious (a disfigured character from Star Wars).  We travel through fifth grade with August, watching him cope and grow and learn to love school.  Told from many alternating perspectives, we learn about the lives of others and how they interact with August as well.  In the end, we learn that nobody is as innocent or guilty as they seem, and that perhaps “being kinder than necessary” is the only way for us to go in this life.

                As I was reading the ending, I kept saying to myself, “I’m not going to cry, I’m not going to cry.”  I read the book last year, and the last few chapters at the awards ceremony induced the kind of tears that makes it difficult to breathe.  Well, I failed in my mantra, but I do not mind.  This book is such a beautiful testament to the idea that we have got to be kinder to one another.  When August first arrives at his school, he gets the shocked expressions and sideways glances that he has gotten his entire life.  Then, people even play a game called “The Plague” where if you touch him, you have to wash your hands within 30 seconds or you have The Plague, too.  These boys and girls may think they are being funny, but they are being cruel to August.  I loved watching the softening of the school.  Eventually, people are asking to borrow a pencil from him, fist bumping him, and even sticking up for him when other schools pick on him.  When August goes on a retreat with his school, things are pretty good with almost everyone at his school.  He can’t prepare for everyone in the world, though, and I hate the cruelty that the children from the other school have towards him.  Their responses are, “Oh my god!,” “No freakin’ way, man!  No freakin’ way!,” and “Oh man!”  We come so far in this book with regards to people’s respect towards August, but the retreat shows that August will have to fight an uphill battle for the rest of his life.

                One of my favorite parts about this book was the alternating viewpoints.  August tells the story more than anyone else, but his sister Via, her boyfriend Justin, her friend Miranda, August’s friend Jack, and August’s friend Summer all get a chance to have their say.  We feel so sorry for August, that we never stop to think about the lives that the other characters are living, and what they must be going through.  To me, aside from August, I enjoyed Via’s perspective the most.  Her entire life has revolved around August.  Entering high school for the first year, Via’s oldest friends have abandoned her and she is filled with shame as she realizes that she doesn’t want August to go to her new school.  She doesn’t want them to know about her brother and be known, once again, as that girl with the messed up brother.  Via has such patience for her brother, and rarely outwardly complains about the fact that she is always being dismissed by her parents because of something more pressing with August.  I like that R. J. Palacio showed us that even August can be kind of bratty.  When Via is trying to talk to him in the chapter told from her perspective, she tells him that everyone has bad days.  August replies with, “’Do people go out of their way to avoid touching you, Via?... Yeah, right.  That’s what I thought.  So don’t compare your bad days at school to mine, okay?’”  I loved this line because it made me realize that just because August is the central character, and he has a fight that no one should have, it doesn’t diminish the very real life of his sister and everyone else around him.  All of the characters in the story have their own issues to deal with, and this story gives us a glimpse into many struggles.

                I really wished I thought that this story was appropriate for my fourth graders.  Fourth grade is a time when many students begin to worry about what others think about them.  In many of the lower grades, this is present, but I think that for some students, fourth grade is the first time where what their friends think is more important than what most other people think.  It is not a bad thing, but it is a definite shift from younger years.  This story is a great story for children who are learning how to deal with wanting to be accepted by others, but still needing to be kind as well.  The central themes of acceptance and kindness are applicable to all children, especially the fragile group of kids who are just growing into themselves as pre-teens.  I think that, despite how much I wish it were right for my kids, they just aren’t old enough yet.  This book is most appropriate for perhaps late fifth grade, but definitely middle-school.  A 6th grade teacher could use this book as a read-aloud at the beginning of the year to set the tone for the upcoming year.  If you do plan on using this book in your classroom, check out R.J. Palacio's list of questions she has for teachers to discuss that accompany the book. 

                One of the things that I enjoyed about this story was Mr. Browne’s Precepts.  Each month, August’s English teacher gives them a new precept.  According to Mr. Browne, “Precepts = Rules about reality.  Important things!”  These precepts are mottos that the students use to live by, everything from “Your deeds are your monuments” to “What is beautiful is good, and what is good will soon be beautiful.”  If a teacher were to do this as a read-aloud at the beginning of the year, then that teacher could even do their own precepts.  As part of a Resilient Classroom project that is being done in my classroom this quarter, I suggested that we start using precepts weekly.  Our first precept that we are going to talk about and focus on for a week is going to be “Be the friend you want to be.”  These mottos for children to live by and repeat to themselves again and again is a beautiful way to set a tone and build community amongst your students.

                Wonder is the kind of book that leaves you without a single bad word to say.  It shows us that we need to be kind, but also gives us the reasoning and thinking as to why some people might not always be kind.  It shows us people who are going to have to struggle for their whole lives, but it doesn’t have them give up on the struggle.  It is a book about kindness, acceptance, and learning to fit in.  For an age group where fitting in is paramount, this book is perfect.
 
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