I’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.
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.