There is no doubt about it, this book is a tear jerker. I have to say that I really am struggling with rating it. My initial reaction is that it was a four star book – I really liked it. Then, when I come to write down what I liked and what I struggled with, I realise that there was a lot that I struggled with in this book, but there was a lot I liked too. So, I am going to be kind and stick with my initial four stars, and I’ll explain why it could have been three stars.
August is 10 years old. He has a terrible facial abnormality, which has meant serial surgical procedures for most of his short life. Because of this, he has been homeschooled up until now. August lives with his Mom, his Dad, his sister Via and his family dog, Daisy. At the beginning of the book Auggie finds out that his Mom and Dad have been going through the process of enrolling him at a school, because Auggie needs to learn more than his Mom can teach him, and she’s not just talking about fractions:
‘”We can’t keep protecting him,” Mom whispered to Dad, who was driving. “We can’t just pretend that he’s going to wake up tomorrow and this isn’t going to be his reality, because it is, Nate, and we have to help him learn to deal with it. We can’t just keep avoiding situations that…”
“So sending him off to middle school, like a lamb to the slaughter…” Dad answered angrily, but he didn’t even finish his sentence because he saw me in the mirror looking up.’
EVERY parent who reads that is going to be thinking about their own ‘letting go’ challenges. All of us have had those moments where we are sending our children into the unpredictable and not necessarily kind world. We know the instinct to protect, for just a little while longer, even as we know that we should let go. How much harder is that choice in this case?
Readers in their early teens will know how hard it is to start a new school, wanting to get things just right, wanting to make the right impression. How many books have been written about just that?!
Doesn’t it make us all feel a little bit ashamed of the days we haven’t wanted to go out in public because it’s a fat day/a big zit day/a bad hair day/an I said a stupid thing yesterday day…We all know that moment when we have to brace ourselves, be a bit more courageous than we want to be, and get on with it. Most of us are dealing with something much less significant than Auggie, and yet we recognise an element of it.
That’s where this book has it over us. Because, ‘whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’ We are, like Via, on the moral back foot. Via is four years older than Auggie, and she can only remember glimpses of time without him being around. Her story is equally as compelling as Auggie’s. Via tells the story of what it is like to be Auggie’s sister. It is hard for her to admit that she has needs, when – always – Auggie’s needs are greater. But moments of self-pity, and let me say that self-pity is normal for a teenager, when she sees Mom standing outside Auggie’s door late at night just looking in and wonders if Mom has ever done that at her door, paint a realistic picture of feeling a little bit less loved than her brother, of getting less time and attention. However, when she gets to go to a new school, where the kids don’t know about her little brother, she revels in her anonymity. She becomes Olivia, and makes some new friends, including a boyfriend. None of this is without some fairly normal teenage challenges like learning to cope with not being in the popular group, and how friendships change. All of which have been the MAIN storyline of many a book, but are peripheral in this one. As Via says, ‘August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun…But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos. The galaxy is changing. Planets are falling out of alignment.’ Hmmmm…a useful, but well-worn, metaphor.
The story of Auggie’s settling in to school has its highs and lows, as might be expected. Some fairly predictable plot devices are used, like the quirky girl who could be in the popular group, but chooses to sit at Auggie’s lunch table, the boy who struggles between peer pressure and conscience, and the boy who fakes nice in front of the adults. I felt that the age of these kids was really indeterminate…they wandered from sounding between 8 – 10years (for example, Auggie often calls Mom and Dad Mommy and Daddy) and 12 – 14years.
I’m not sure, either, about some of Mr Browne’s ‘precepts’. They felt contrived, and I’m not sure they entirely worked as a plot device. Subtlety would have been better than smacking us in the face with the morals of the story. And I didn’t even know how many of them I really agreed with, or felt like they were worth a month’s scrutiny. For example, ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’ Ummm…since when could you be unkind and be right??? So then, are we supposed to be ‘kind’ (read patronising) to Auggie. Since when is that kind? Doesn’t he deserve true kindness, which would always be right. For that matter, don’t we all? I’m still struggling with that one. So, maybe it is worth a month’s scrutiny!
Another plot device that seems to be popular at the moment, is the multiple perspectives device. This works when all the voices are unique. Books like ‘Bluefish’, by Pat Schmatz and ‘Because of Mr Terupt’, by Rob Buyea, do this really well. In ‘Wonder’ the voices just don’t feel significantly well characterised, although it does allow the reader the chance to review scenes in the book to learn a little more.
But a good book provokes, doesn’t it? And this book did provoke thought. And I am sure it would be a great book to use in class, although it is somewhat clumsy with its morals. Great discussion could be had over so many elements of the story. So long as it doesn’t slip into being patronising, or over simplified. This book had some heroic attempts at reminding us that we are all human, and we struggle to make the best decisions we can with the resources we have, and that we won’t get it right all the time. And that’s a great message to remember. I wish that had been a Mr Browne precept.
So, all in all, I liked the book. Maybe I even really liked the book, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Ultimately, though, I am still inclined to err towards a four star rating.