Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Comments: 26




Wonder at GoodreadsI’m writing this preamble before I re-read the book I’m about to review. As much as this is a review of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 book Wonder by a Disfigured person (my chosen ID and capitalisation) , it won’t – and can’t – be reflective only of my proximity to the story. It must also reflect that I’ve changed, and that my view of myself and the world around me has changed, since I first experienced Wonder.

I originally listened to Wonder on Audible, within months of publication, and despite the transatlantic divide, I saw myself vividly in ten-year-old August Pullman. I saw my loving middle-class family, and the sibling who felt both isolated and penned-in by the fallout of my condition. I felt my school anxiety, and the warmth of a small knot of friends, and the embarrassment of targeted bullying. I was thrilled that Auggie even had the same favourite films as I did.

And all of this was shown through the lens of disfigurement, through the eyes of a boy (in the chapters narrated by Auggie) whose eyelids were perhaps sewn at the margins just like mine, who might have my underbite. A character who would know what it’s like to put effort into speaking clearly every time you meet a new person, in case they think the movement of your lips equals your intelligence. All this, written by a woman with no direct experience of disfigurement. This was astounding to me; that someone who, in the end, could never know what it’s actually like seemed to have gotten it so “right.”

I knew the importance of owning one’s own story then, but that conviction only grew in the following years. And I would be reminded that many disabled, disfigured people don’t have the support system Auggie and I have, aren’t able to access the necessary healthcare, aren’t so safely white (or read as such). I’d discover that I’m not the comfortably cisgender boy I thought I was, the boy I thought I saw reflected in Auggie Pullman. In the time since I first read Wonder, my understanding of my disfigurement, and the world it occupies, has transformed. How will I now read and receive what was the most personally representative book of my life?


For starters, Auggie doesn’t have an underbite; in fact, he’s described as having the opposite, though his pronounced overbite does present similar difficulties with eating. Just like me, Auggie had to learn to keep his tongue inside his mouth.

On her website, author R.J. Palacio concedes that – if pushed – she would identify Auggie’s dominant anomaly as Treacher-Collins syndrome, with a cleft lip/palate, and numerous “medical mysteries” as described in the book. It’s these mysteries that rang the first small alarm bells upon re-reading; they seem only to be there to justify the title (inspired by a Natalie Merchant song) and aren’t described in detail. The 2017 film has confirmed Auggie’s Treacher-Collins, but Palacio’s woolliness on specifying the condition has always seemed weird to me.

Auggie’s sister Via has an interest in genetics, and wants to go into the field to help future Auggies. Whether “help” means improving quality of life or totally preventing Treacher-Collins is an important distinction, one which is unfortunately left unclear. In a culture where genetic conditions are so often seen as problems to be solved by what amount to eugenicist “cures,” that clarity would be useful. But Via’s future intent remains a mystery, as do those aspects of Auggie’s condition previously described.

Besides August’s condition, Wonder is a very beige, cisheteronormative, upper-middle-class and surprisingly abled book. Throughout, August is defined as “not disabled.” He may look different – horrifically so to some – but as the book keeps insisting, deep down he has the same abilities as his family and friends. When a concerned mother writes to the director of Beecher Prep’s middle school, questioning Auggie’s fast-tracked admittance, the director shuts down her talk of the boy’s “special needs.” This moment is admittedly framed by good intentions, with Beecher’s director defending Auggie’s place at the school against a busybody, but when the disabilities of Auggie’s disfigurement are downplayed through the book, it certainly rubbed me a little wrong.

This seems like a missed opportunity, especially as August is the only visible disfigured/disabled character in the book – which, to me, is sad. Auggie has only abled, “normal” people around him; nobody alike to share experiences with, no mentor (or peer) with whom to explore what it means to be disfigured, or to discuss whether disfigurement is a disability. (I believe it is, per the social model.) Via’s boyfriend confides in the reader about his own nervous tics, but he doesn’t describe their origin, nor does he share any real page-time with August.

There are some issues beyond this as well. To borrow and bastardise Via’s solar system metaphor, they gravitate around the good intentions of the author. It’s necessary here to restate that R.J. Palacio doesn’t have direct experience with disfigurement; as far as anyone has been made aware through interviews, no one in her immediate family or peer group is disfigured. Rather, Palacio reports that the impetus to write Wonder came from an incident in which her young son reacted poorly to seeing a disfigured child. After removing her children from the situation immediately, Palacio retrospectively wished that she could have instead utilised the moment to teach –

[Hello, it’s those alarm bells again]

– perhaps engaging with the disfigured child. The spectre of the unpaid educational labour disabled people are expected to provide to abled allies rears its head.

And the question of how allies treat the marginalized is present throughout the most problematic narrative thread in Wonder.  Since August’s birth, Via has dealt with the fallout of his needs, and become independent while Auggie is forever fussed over. At the same time, she puzzles over another kind of independence, from her estranged best friend Miranda, who herself has been almost another sister to Auggie. When Miranda’s point-of-view chapters arrive, Auggie’s true place between her and Via becomes apparent.

Around new friends at summer camp, Miranda talks about August as if he were her own brother in order to garner sympathy and the resultant social capital. Meanwhile, Via rejects the definition of “sister of a kid with a birth defect” that Miranda so readily exploits.

All comes to a head when Via and Miranda’s school puts on a play. When cast as Miranda’s understudy, Via refuses to tell her parents, in a bid to keep August away from the one part of her life he doesn’t impact. After a change of heart and circumstances, the Pullman parents and Auggie do end up attending the play. When she sees this, Miranda makes the last-minute decision to feign illness, allowing Via the opportunity to take the limelight, thus engineering Via’s reconciliation with her brother. Honourable, though not necessarily intentional. And what if August had known the full extent of how both Miranda and Via used and viewed him? I think he’d be well within his rights to feel significantly hurt, and to not forgive as easily as he does throughout the rest of the book.

Because, however hurt Auggie may be by someone, he almost always seems willing to shrug it off. More than once, a character who has done Auggie wrong will assume forgiveness, perhaps after a traumatic event has brought them back together, or laughter has thawed the ice. And each time, Auggie is quick to agree and move on. Perhaps the authorial justification is that Auggie doesn’t like dwelling on things. That’s fair enough, but it does telegraph something of a lack of agency.

Once noticed, this lack of agency is a glaring issue. Stuff happens to Auggie; we see him make choices to be more independent, when circumstances call for it, but his most significant fulfilment of agency is to shut out a friend. (This is also the one time when he doesn’t immediately forgive.) Active, positive actions aren’t Auggie’s to take. Plenty happens to him that is positive – he makes friends, he earns respect, he experiences a “seismic shift” in his social standing following a climactic incident at camp – but it is rarely his decision or intended action which causes it.

There are things that make me sad about Wonder. I wish these opportunities had been recognised and utilized. Auggie’s lack of real agency. The fact that Via and Miranda never truly examine their own actions, and how they treat their brother/“brother.” The marginalised identities which could have enriched the story, but instead will have to wait for the next kidlit book about disfigurement – and when will that be?

There are also things I find suspect or distasteful, such as the book’s meta-campaign “Choose Kind,” inspired by the monthly precepts (inspirational phrases) Auggie’s English teacher hands out. There’s anger in Wonder, mostly borne of pre-teen moodiness, but what does the edict “when given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind” do, except stifle the valid and necessary anger of oppressed people?

It’s not as if R.J. Palacio is utterly unaware of power dynamics; she chose not to give bully Julian a narrative section in Wonder to avoid “[giving]a bully a platform” (although she would later go on to write a short story from Julian’s perspective). She has also said that she most relates to the character of Charlotte, “a good girl, but she’s not quite brave enough to act on her good instincts.” (Both of these insights come from the very informative FAQ page on Palacio’s Wonder website.)

I think what makes me saddest is the fact that Palacio didn’t have direct knowledge to draw from, due to the lack of a significant disfigured person in her life.

Moving beyond the disfigurement representation, it’s important to note that the Pullmans are a (likely) white, reasonably well-off family, living in “a brick townhouse in North River Heights, the hippie-stroller capital of upper-upper Manhattan.” Outside the text, Palacio does concede that Auggie’s father probably “[works]long hours to try and pay for all the medical bills not covered by insurance,” but the fact that no such bills are agonised over within Wonder suggests a fairly easy life. Beecher Prep, by its nature, is attended mostly by students like the Pullmans, whose parents can afford the tuition fees. August has a friend who is probably one of the few exceptions, but it’s never explicitly clear.

And this world seems unconcerned, at best, with race. There are several students with names that suggest they’re kids of colour, but none of their identities are touched upon. More promising are the nods to Isabel Pullman’s Brazilian heritage – August is clearly named after her father, Agosto, and her parents’ travels are described – but hopes that it’s a mixed-race family are dashed when August visits the home of his friend Summer. On seeing a photo of her late father (whose ethnicity is left unclear), Summer confirms her own mixed heritage, and there’s certainly no sense of kinship from Auggie.

For a book published so recently, set in New York City, it is also sad – and somewhat surprising – that there are no nods to LGBTQIA identities. The one (upsetting) exception is a character’s use of “your boyfriend” as a pejorative against an antagonist late in the story.

For all the neglected intersections of identity mourned above, Wonder remains an engaging, enjoyable book. R.J. Palacio’s ten-year-old voices are consistently believable, as are those of her slightly older narrators. The journey of the narrative is satisfying; every major character learns something important about themselves and the world they inhabit.

I still love Wonder, about as much as I did when I first read it. I just want it to be better, so I can evangelise it everywhere, like I used to. Because despite its flaws, Wonder is an engaging, heart-rending story about disfigurement, and the world needs those books.

Review: <em srcset=Wonder by R.J. Palacio 1″ width=”300″ height=”450″>Since I began to draft this review, Wonder has found renewed prominence, with the late 2017 release of the film adaptation. This is just an addendum, and I value my mental health at the beginning of 2018 too highly to go into too much detail; the film upsets me a lot more than the book does (and I still haven’t seen it), mostly due to the fact that Auggie was cast with a non-disfigured actor.

Perhaps when/if I do see Wonder the film, I’ll write more about it, but for now, you can easily find Twitter threads I’ve made on the subject. More importantly, I want to link to a couple of pieces by others with facial disfigurements/visible differences. First, from American writer Ariel Henley, this article on how the film exploits facial difference, and an Atlantic review of the film, also from Ariel. Finally, I want to share this exhaustive master-post from Australian writer Carly Findlay which covers pretty much every angle of concern about the film.

Thank you for reading these pieces and mine, and I hope that you’ll remember to prioritise and support voices of disfigurement/visible difference, when our lives and livelihoods get thrust into the spotlight.

About Author

Mike Moody

Mike Moody is a 27-year-old Disfigured trans woman living in the UK. She makes music and writes when executive function and inspiration (in that order) allow, and takes semi-regular trips to Florida to be with her girlfriend, where she is too hot in the summer and just right in the winter. Mike tweets @guysmiley22, probably a little too much for her mental health.



  1. Thank you Mike for a thoughtful review of this beautiful and yet challenging title.
    The thing that struck me in reading it was how easily August’s classmates understood him. In the past I taught a fairly wide variety of students in special education in the US. A few of them had facial disfigurements as part of other medical conditions and I taught a student who was recovering from severe burns over much of his body. What I found the disfigured students struggled with the most was being understood in conversation by their peers. Because they didn’t always produce the anticipated facial expression to accompany their speech their peers tended to misread their intentions, their tone, their mood. This was particularly true of the child with substantial burn scars over most of his face. I’m not disfigured myself, so perhaps this was just the issue most apparent to me as a teacher. And maybe I’m off base entirely. Still I had my hesitations from the beginning because the book seemed to overlook such a central issue.
    I’m an indie bookseller and I do book talks for teachers all the time. I’ll be sure to point them in the direction of this review when Wonder comes up.
    Thank you for being so thoughtful and thorough in your critique.

  2. HI Mike,
    Let me start off by saying you did a very good job at being thorough and making it easy to understand what the story was about, especially for someone like me who hasn’t read it yet. I have heard many good things about this book. Just from your critique I read that it talks about children with disabilities or disfigurements and how it is important for students to treat one another the same no matter what how someone looks or acts. They deserve the same respect as others. I think I would probably really love this book because I am currently going to school for teaching and I believe this is an issue we still have because sometimes individuals don’t truly understand why someone was born the way they were or whatever the case is but to teach that it is important to respect everyone and treat them the same as you would want to be treated. Thank you for your critique and I look forward to reading this book.

  3. I am really impressed by your expressions. Actually, I feel the people who are deformed on their faces do not want that. Deformities can be genetic or accidental. More than that, disfigured people always need someone who can understand and can share with them. However, the way people around treat disfigured people makes them difficult to interact with. Many people will tend to misunderstand or isolate people who have deformed faces. That will create a big gap between people. I am really grateful, and I am sure I will find and read this book.

  4. Taylor Clemmons on

    I really enjoyed your detailed review of this inspiring yet thought-provoking title, “Wonder”. In your review several thinks stuck out to me. In the before part of your review you talked about how relatable you felt to ten-year-old August Pullman. You discussed in detail how you felt the pressures of meeting new people and them thinking because your speech may be delayed that they would judge your intelligence from this. I wonder, is the pressure still high when you meet people? Has your reading of this book ‘Wonder’, gave you more confidence to mingle with others? You also talked about how the author, R.J. Palacio was a woman who never experienced disfigurement, but actually got the character right. Why do you think this is? Do you think she knew or shadowed someone to really capture the essence for the character? These are some questions that I have after reading your very insightful review. Also, you talked about how easy it was for Auggie’s friends to understand him. I feel like the author did fluff a lot of what in reality would not happen. In the real world August would not have been understood so quickly if at all by peers that were not like him. Your review has really give me lots of insight from the book perspective. Most of your questions and thoughts throughout your after part of your review, has me also pondering the same questions. I saw the movie and I am going to read the book very soon to make comparisons. I thought the movie was amazing! I didn’t realize that the character in the movie wasn’t a disfigured person in real life. Thank you Mike for your review and I hope that you change your mind about watching the movie!

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  6. I think that is article was written quite well. This my first time hearing a review on this story and I think you raise some very good points. You are definitely right. The author should’ve included more information as it pertains to Auggie’s condition. However, I think that one of the reasons why they left it up in the air may have been for the readers to explore and do some personal research. Another thing that I found interesting was the idea that Auggie is from a high-middle class family. I wonder what his life would’ve been like if he were from a lower class. I know his access to schools would be much more limited and that may affect the reactions from his peers and I also think that he wouldn’t have access to the best medical resources. I have not yet read or seen Wonder but I think that it does start a conversation on the physical disfiguration known as Treacher-Collins. I think that the next best step would be to create a film that would focus on someone who actually has the condition, or like you said, cast someone in a movie that already has the condition as opposed to using prosthetics for the actors.

  7. Mike,
    Your critique of this book was spot on. This book has been read by all the teenagers in my house and they all love it. They are on Auggie’s side and don’t understand why people are so cruel. They have seen many child with various disabilities and see them as no different from themselves. It’s been one of the great benefits of me working in the special education field. I try to teach my own kids and the kids in my classroom to be accepting of all people and they’re differences.

  8. Letizia M. Gomez on

    As a future teacher i found this book very interesting, especially it being targeted for middle schoolers. This book deals with something all students can relate too, whether that’s being new to a school, being bullied by classmates, or other related themes that go on in school. Overall this book portrays plenty if positive messages. It is a good book to share with students, the message is all about being kind to one another. Everyone needs someone to give them unconditional love.

  9. I read wonder about 2 years ago! I will admit it made me cry tears of frustration and later joy. I could vividly feel and see what it was like to be each character in the story through the authors words. At the time I was working at a middle school and it was a school wife project for everyone to read the book. It was so touching and heart warming to see the other students reactions to the book. I was working with a student that has Pierre Robins syndrome and he had to wear a trach in order to breathe. I always felt protective of him when we walked in the halls or outside because I could see the stares from parents and other students and I didn’t want the student to fall under the gaze of those looks. Deep down I know I could never protect him from society and he has been living with this condition his whole life. But my nurturing soul couldn’t help it. After reading this book I could see hat more student started giving him high fives in the hall. It was just very warming. August is heroic in my eyes. I’m so glad he had the support from his family in friends each step of the way.

  10. I read Wonder about 2 years ago while working in the school system and it was a school wide assignment to read Wonder and complete a project. All around the halls we had the saying “choose Kindness”.I will admit it made cry tears of joy and frustration. I could vividly feel and imagine what it was like for each character in the story through the authors words. At the time I was working with a young man that was born with Pierre Robins syndrome and had to wear a trach in order to breathe. I always felt protective of him when we walked in the halls or outside because I could see the stares from the parents and other student. I wanted to protect him from falling under gazes of concern or just curiosity. Deep down I knew I could never protect him from society. I think he may have coped with the looks better than me being that he’s been living with the condition his whole life. All the characters in Wonder were heroic to me. I could see how things shifted in the school after reading this book! I noticed the student I was working with kind of had a little more confidence.

  11. Your review of this book definitely made me want to read it and learn more about August Pullman. Disabilities come in many shapes and forms and as a special education teacher, I love to read and learn more about others perspectives regarding any kind of disabilities and how if effects them personally. I see there was a movie made about this book and I’m looking forward to seeing that as well!

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  13. Sheena Wynne on

    I loved you review. I haven’t read the book or watched the movie, however you have made ask my self some questions about the books i am buying for my children. My children will not learn about all the wonderful people in the world if I don’t expose them to them.

  14. Cameron Freeman on

    Mike this was an amazing review of this reading! I definitely agree that the author should’ve included more information about the characters condition. Another thing that I found interesting was the idea that Auggie is from a high-middle class family his access to schools would be much more limited and that may affect the reactions from his classmates and I also think that he wouldn’t have access to the best medical resources which would have unfortunately made his life even more difficult but ultimately more relatable for some readers. I completely agree that they should cast someone in a movie that already has the condition as opposed to using prosthetics and for the actors.

  15. I have not read this book; however, I would like to read about how disabilities appproached in this book. I want to be sensitive to children that may experience bullying or be outcast by their peers. I have a nephew that has no hands and no feet. His siblings are very aware of this and are quite protective. They do not hesitate to stare down a person who may be whispering and pointing at their brother. Nothing stops my nephew from learning to do whatever he wants to do academically or physically. I would hope this book would point out the importance of family support of children with abilities that may be different from other children.

  16. Reisha A Natoo on

    Thank you for this thoughtful and very detailed book review. I am studying to become an elementary teacher and learning about children with different disabilities is very important to me. This book sounds like it would make me cry. Bullying in school by your peers is not easy to deal with, however, Wonder has many positive messages we can all relate to. I can’t wait to read the book and see the movie.

  17. Mallory Johnosn on

    Mike, you did a great job with this review. I have read and watched the movie and I loved them both. This was actually the first book I ever read about a child with a disability. It made me realize that there aren’t many books available that show a child with a disability going through there day to day lives. I think that this book is important for kids to read because it gives them a different perspective on how to treat people. I do think that the author could have gone into more detail about the condition but overall I would say they did a great job. I also loved how they not only showed the boys life but also how his condition affected his entire family.

  18. Razan Alhindi on

    Thank you for the critique of the book. I really enjoyed your thorough and detailed review that would definitely help people struggling have a better understanding of it. I think all students should be required to read this book because it really shows how everyone should be treated equality no matter what. This kid struggled getting picked on by his fellow classmates just by the way he looks. It really does raise awareness with disabilities and bullying so all schools should have it required to read around the time of middle school. The book really shows that everyone should have love, kindness, and respect with one another because at the end of the day you don’t know what the person is going through.

  19. jessica caruso on

    Thank you for this post! My daughter has CHARGE syndrome, and has a small eye ( microphthalmia ) as well as vision and hearing loss, short stature, and developmental delay. She has always fought to fit in, and she is struggling really hard in 8th grade. We have all read Wonder, and watched the movie as a family. She can really relate to Auggie, and I think her brother and sister can relate to Via. Thanks again for perspective, I really enjoyed it!

  20. What is this comment section? What is happening? And I remember reading the interview where she talks about her ‘inspiration’ for the book in a kids magazine when I was way younger. It never quite sat perfect with me. And I would have been soooo bugged about the ‘helping kids like Auggie’ thing when it’s never clarified how she wants to help/””””””””help””””””” (flashbacks to when I tried to convince my entire biology class that using genetic engineering to prevent autism and ADHD wouldn’t actually be a good thing until the only other kid in said class with ADHD finally put me out of my misery and asked the teacher to change the subject. For context, at that point I don’t really think anyone else in the class knew there were kids with ADHD in said class).

  21. Hi Mike, thanks for the review. I am a woman who has lived with a disfigurement since birth, and I had a really hard time getting through Wonder. What a perfect example of the very concept of inspiration porn. I am glad you are injecting some much-needed nuance into the conversation, it’s exhausting to hear people defend this book and act like it’s the perfect work of fiction.

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