Last Updated on May 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035
In her immensely popular novel Wonder, R. J. Palacio makes a case for the power of kindness in the world. When it was published in 2012, Wonder caused a sensation, and it has continued to remain near the top of middle-grade reading lists in schools across the United States. It is an accessible book for young readers, relying on its skillful writing, compelling plot, and diversity of characters and perspectives to capture their attention.
Each of the eight parts that make up the novel is told from a specific character’s perspective, which allows August Pullman’s story to slowly unfold through the eyes of different primary and secondary characters. Each individual has their own personal challenges and hopes, yet every chapter serves to progress Auggie’s story as well. In choosing to write from a variety of perspectives, Palacio prompts readers to practice empathy by revealing the inner world of each character. This choice of plot structure also demonstrates a high level of respect and attentiveness to young readers, meeting them socially where they are likely to be around middle school age. That is one reason for the book’s enduring popularity.
Within the shifting points of view, Palacio chose to write Wonder using clear, uncomplicated language. This straightforward approach, combined with the compelling story itself, is another reason for the novel’s appeal. Each of the characters has a distinctive voice. For example, Via demonstrates her more sophisticated worldview in part by her use of figurative language:
I held onto that secret and let it cover me like a blanket.
Auggie is more directly descriptive, as when he considers the way Darth Sidious looks:
His skin gets all shriveled up and his whole face just kind of melts.
The tone of Auggie’s narration is distinct, as he demonstrates a sense of humor in all but the most tragic moments of his life. Auggie is not a difficult person to understand, as it turns out. When Mr. Tushman questions him about his choice of self-portrait, seeking to read some deeper meaning into it, Auggie says,
No, it’s because I think I look like a duck.
Auggie’s point of view proves him to be an unpretentious character who prefers to communicate clearly. Justin, in turn, is characterized as lacking in confidence; he is still developing clarity in his view of the world. Part 5, which is told from his perspective, includes no capital letters or nonessential punctuation. This hints at an interiority to his narrative, which also lends his tone a wistful quality that changes the energy of the narrative. Each character, in these and other ways, brings a richness and a completeness to the story as a whole.
Wonder’s thematic concentration on kindness is supported by recurring motifs of friendship, social development, family, acceptance, and coming of age. Like the protagonists of many other coming-of-age novels, Auggie goes through a series of dramatic changes over the course of the book. At first, he is a brilliant but socially stunted boy, and by the end of the novel, he has metamorphosed into a confident, friendly young man who is valued and admired by his peers and influential adults.
Auggie’s journey, and that of the supporting characters, is defined and introduced by Mr. Browne’s precepts, of which there are ten, one for each month of the school year. Being kind, choosing good deeds, and taking positive action are celebrated in the various precepts. For example, the November precept reads,
Have no friends not equal to yourself. —Confucius
This coincides with Auggie’s friendship challenges. For a time, the reader believes, as Auggie does, that Jack has betrayed his trust. August clearly thinks that Jack is not a worthy friend. He is only redeemed in August’s mind by taking strong action—punching Julian—and then apologizing to Auggie. That matches December’s precept:
Fortune favors the bold. —Virgil
The narrative structure of Wonder is centered around these guiding precepts. If read one after the other, they give a good sense of the story’s trajectory. In September, the theme is introduced with this precept:
When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind. —Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
As Auggie maneuvers through the social landscape of middle school, attempting to understand the complex hierarchy of relationships, he is supported in his search for friends by October’s precept:
Your deeds are your monuments. —inscription on an Egyptian tomb
The necessity of becoming part of the social network, in spite of its many challenges, is reinforced by January’s:
No man is an island, entire of itself. —John Donne
The ideas of kindness and the eventual triumph of goodness are revisited in March, April, and May. Finally, with Auggie’s triumphant end to the school year, the June precept sets a celebratory tone for the conclusion of the book:
Just follow the day and reach for the sun! —The Polyphonic Spree
Although the novel ends there, R. J. Palacio opens up possibilities for readers to expand their thinking by having the student characters send their own precepts to Mr. Browne over the summer. In so doing, she offers another glimpse into the various characters’ lives and personalities.
Wonder has been celebrated as an anti-bullying text for its messages of acceptance of others and victory through kindness. Auggie is rewarded in the end by the acceptance of his fellow classmates, beyond the friends he made initially. With a new nickname and a position in the school’s social hierarchy, he is for the first time truly part of a peer community.
This is accomplished not through any particular action on Auggie’s part. Instead, the other students are the ones who change and learn how to protect, value, and accept Auggie. This demonstrates the desired outcome for any organization concerned about bullying, for the victim should not be expected to change their behavior; rather, the bullies themselves need to change. Wonder, although a fictional story, portrays a situation in which that reality could come about. It serves as a valuable model for teachers and schools who want to have a conversation about bullying that feels real, accessible, and empowering for young people.