It’s not easy to pull off a story whose core has potentially maudlin proclivities, with no trace of sentimentality or the author’s own pity for her character. If I hadn’t first read WONDER by R.J. Palacio for myself, though, I might have been alarmed to hear my daughter chuckling as she read the opening chapters of this book about boy with no real ears to speak of and a severely misaligned, surgery-scarred face; might have worried that she was sociopathically lacking in empathy.
But laughing your way through is a good impulse (albeit one I didn’t have, probably because I’ve already lived through middle school, the backdrop for WONDER, and remember precisely nothing amusing about the experience). It not only serves to honor the efforts of the protagonist, August, and those around him to muddle through adversity—living with your own impossible face or living with a person who has an impossible face—but negates the corniness of an inevitable happy ending. Not that a book like this shouldn’t have a happy ending. In fact, one thing I realize I’ve been enjoying about middle grade novels is their absolute unabashed conviction in happy endings; it’s always a joy to reach the last page, when you feel fulfilled by what’s come before.
WONDER begins in August’s voice, as he grapples with the idea of going off to the terrifying world of school for the very first time, and all the angst, fear and bravery that entails. A few chapters in, it switches its POV to August’s various family members and acquaintances, then eventually circles back to August. Initially, I wasn’t sure I liked this devise. It snaps the reader out of the carefully-constructed world of the story, which is a little bit dangerous—the reader may never come back around. But because of it, the book achieves a broader, more complex and compelling understanding of the workings of empathy. It also recognizes that some people who cross our paths are just jerks, beyond the reach of empathy; a happy ending is happy, too, to leave them behind.