Book Reviews 2014 · Contemporary Books · Young Adult Book Reviews

‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio (Including ‘The Julian Chapter’ Short Story)

My name is August.

I won’t describe what I look like.

Whatever you’re thinking,

It’s probably worse.

4.75 Stars (Rounded to 5)

I am not a fan of contemporary books on the whole. For a start, they often focus on romance, and I hate books with the primary view on romance. So when I find a contemporary book which features near to no romance, it is a good move for my contemporary reads. The majority of my contemporary books actually focus on characters battling personal issues and disabilities; my personal favourite contemporary of all time is ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon, a book about a boy with Asperger’s and his view on the world; this is a book that means a lot to me. So to see the blurb “destined to go the way of ‘The Curious Incident…’ and then some” (The Times) on the back of this book was the final push I needed to pick up ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio. I had heard amazing things about this book, and I had my fingers crossed that it would be a fantastic book. I have to say that it did not disappoint, but I did have a few very minor issues with it.

‘Wonder’ is about a boy, August, who has severe facial deformities, and is about to face his fear and attend middle school for the first time, exposing himself to the peers whom he is certain will criticise him for his condition. I was expecting this book to be told solely from August’s point of view. I was actually incredibly glad when I discovered that the eight parts of the book (in the standard edition) are told from six points of view, with August having three, and one chapter each for August’s sister, his two best friends, his sister’s boyfriend and a long-time family friend (my edition of the book contains an extra short story, acting as a part from August’s bully Julian, which I will review at the end of this post separately). This was a brilliant move; not only do we see August dealing with his condition, but we see those close to him react to him. As a person who has a medical difficulty of their own (albeit not a visible one like August’s) and who sometimes feels a similar way about how their condition can define aspects of their life, I was eager to get into how August deals with his struggles. These chapters were generally written beautifully, showcasing an extreme range of emotion, from hatred of the way that he was born to a resignation that he has to face life with the load he has been given, and created an incredibly strong and believable perspective. Whilst I can identify in part with August’s situation, I was actually a lot more enthralled by the point of view of his sister Via. I have a brother who has severe mental disabilities, and Via’s part starts off with a passage that made me cry in a way that a book rarely does: the line “August is the sun. Me and Mum and Dad are the planets orbiting the sun. I’m used to the way this works. I’ve never minded it because it’s all I’ve ever known” (page 82, Corgi UK edition) had such a huge impact on me, as I feel that it sums up perfectly how a sibling feels when in a situation where their brother or sister has to take priority. Also, the chapter ‘The Punnet Square’ brought in ideas on genes that people tend not to think about unless challenged with a similar situation in their family. Reading from the point of view of a girl who throughout the course of her chapters makes many points that I have felt multiple times in my lifetime was incredibly powerful to me. I feel that, had you not been in the position that Via is in, it is easy to forget that the implications of a disability do not just extend to the sufferer, and I was overjoyed to see Via’s chapters promoting the feelings of a young carer faced with a sibling with additional needs. The best friend Jack’s chapter was heart-wrenching as well, due to the dramatic irony we readers are experiencing at that stage in the book, and rather than excusing his behaviour in that part of the book, we see genuine remorse, which makes the situation seem very real.

The writing in this book is very strong. Of course, this book is fiction, but when you are reading it you are so absorbed in the story that every element of the book seemed real. The characters jump off the page at you, and every situation would not seem out-of-place in a school. R.J Palacio seems to know what she is talking about regarding every aspect of the plot – genetics, deformities, the struggles of families et cetera – and as a consequence was able to produce a story that was not only believable but appealed and was identifiable to a great range of people.

On the whole, I loved the characterisation of everybody in this book. They were the perfect imperfect set of characters. Via was not the perfect sister; she had those forbidden moments that every carer has where they wish that it was anybody but their family facing the struggle. This does not make her a bad or malicious character, it makes her real. Jack could be incredibly aggravating in the confusion surrounding his feelings, but it echoed how 11-year-old boys act around their companions at school. The taking sides and the turning against each other is a situation that we have all seen in a school environment, and the way in which Jack deals with it may well be stupid, but it is the way that many such conflicts are ‘resolved’ in that atmosphere. In fact, the only character who I had the slightest issues with the portrayal of was August, and this was only in one particular scene that angered me a lot. Generally, the balance between August’s anger and his acceptance of his situation is spot on: moments where he blows his top over his condition, moments where he knows that he has to deal with what he has been given, and moments where he wants to curl up and pretend that his situation does not exist. This balance was nearly always ideal. However the one aspect in which I got very annoyed at August is the way in which he views his sister Via in the early to mid stages of the book. Yes, Via does get embarrassed to be seen with August at her new school, not out of shame but as she does not want to carry the stigma of ‘the girl with the deformed brother’. And yes, August has every right to get angry with her judgement at first, but he never seems to accept that his sister suffers a great deal as a consequence of him. Of course, there is nothing he can do about this fact, but her feelings are very justified, and I would have loved to see a scene where he faces his sister properly about how he affects her life. We see this from Via’s perspective, but I think that it would have been a lot nicer to see August’s acknowledgement of this fact as well. In the chapter ‘Time To Think’, containing a fight between the pair, I feel that August acts incredibly callously and insensitively about her feelings to the point where I developed a temporary hatred for him, and this was the main time, but not the only time, when I thought that August could have done with opening his eyes to his family’s feelings.

Overall, ‘Wonder’ was an incredibly powerful book which preaches the importance acceptance, family and equality, and that I feel everyone should read once in their lifetime; do not get put off by the ‘middle grade/ young adult’ tab placed on this book, as its themes are universal, and teach everyone a good lesson about the way that people should be seen in society as opposed to how they often are. I completely recommend this book to people of all genders, ages and walks of life: we all have a lesson to learn from ‘Wonder’.

‘The Julian Chapter’ Short Story

julian

3.75 Stars (Rounded to 4)

I rarely review short stories, but I had some key points to make on this little novella, that link perfectly to my main review.

As with the main story, Palacio’s characterisation shows moments of genius; every school has the parents like Mr and Mrs Albans, threatening to sue at every opportunity, whilst being completely and utterly blind to their son’s bad behaviour and bullying. Their treatment of the school and their belief that they had a coherent case against them was unfathomable, yet so accurate with the way certain members of society act nowadays. Even out of the school context, there are countless people I have met in my life that have more than a passing resemblance to the pair of them. Julian is another character who is generally written down to a tee – his poor attitude, foul view on others and insistence that he is doing what is right is once again a set of qualities unfortunately present in many people we meet in our lives, and I was looking forward to reading from his perspective to grasp his reasoning on the matter. Unfortunately, it was this reasoning that let the short story down.

I was expecting there to be very little to no reason for Julian’s bullying; we are told so often that bullies often act the way that they do as they face difficulties themselves, but actually a great deal of them act as they have not often been given the best education into morals. I feel that the best reason for Julian’s attitude could have been that his parents did not put enough emphasis on right and wrong or provide enough time from their work to guide him in his upbringing, leading to a skewed sense of morals. But no, Palacio capitalised on the ‘bullies have problems too’ attitude by inventing a nonsensical story of how August’s face sparked night terrors that Julian had just gotten over. Whilst this is perfectly plausible, and I’m not doubting that it could be a true story, I feel that this idea promotes the fact that bullies always have rational reasons, whilst simultaneously undermining the sense that August is just like anyone else, and the outcome is actually rather insulting in my opinion. It was not necessary to try and create excuses for Julian’s behaviour, and if it was an attempt to make us understand and sympathise with him, then it fell flat on its face, as I was actually less willing to give him any time than I was before the novella.

The main story of this focuses on Julian travelling to Paris, where his grandmother recounts a story of a disabled boy in the Second World War changing her perspective on people who are not ‘normal’ in the eyes of society. The war story to create sympathy is slightly clichéd and overused, but I thought that this example was absolutely beautiful. I loved every second of it, and it perfectly set into motion a chain of events leading to a favourable change in Julian’s character.

I believe personally that Julian would not have had the drastic change that he did, were he a real person. Saying that, the development worked perfectly in a fictional context, tying up loose ends from the main story and shutting a door on the troublesome period of both August and Julian’s lives, giving the sense that the book had reached a perfect natural end. I am glad that I read this novella after the book, as I feel that it did enhance my experience of the story, however it was not the perfect explanation I wanted to Julian’s behaviour.

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2 thoughts on “‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio (Including ‘The Julian Chapter’ Short Story)

  1. I really enjoyed how in-depth your review is. Everyone’s been raving about Wonder (especially how it made them cry). I am a lover of Middle Grade, so the labels certainly don’t make me hesitant to want to read this. It sounds unique and realistic, a lovely change from all the angst-y, grim YA novels I seem to read… Now you’ve made me really want to go out and pick this up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂
      If you’re a middle grade lover already, then I’d say definitely go for it. Even if you weren’t, I think that it is a book that appeals to a much wider audience than it is given credit for. If you do read it, then I hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

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