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Loyalty or Looks?

Wonder ($15.99, Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 8-12) by R.J. Palacio is reviewed by Amanda Hogg.

For the first 10 years of his life, August Pullman was home-schooled due to a severe facial deformity that forced him to undergo multiple surgeries. But after being admitted to prestigious Beecher Prep, he decides to enroll in mainstream school. Being the new kid would give anyone the jitters, but August also has to deal with hundreds of eyes staring at him every day. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Julian, the leader of the popular group, wages war against August. Very quickly, all of the 5th grade boys have chosen sides – and not in August’s favor. Will plucky, earnest August let Julian win by being bullied out of Beecher Prep? Or will he stay and show himself and others what they’re made of?

Wonder is told in eight parts by six narrators – August, his sister Via, her boyfriend Justin, and August’s friends, Jack and Summer. This adds a layer of complexity and depth to each of the characters. Via’s and Jack’s sections in particular stand out as they sensitively explore the dynamics of being a sister and friend to someone who looks “different.”

August’s presence at Beecher Prep is the vehicle that speeds up the process of his classmates’ journeys to self discovery, ultimately leading them to choose kindness or cruelty. What makes Wonder a stand out book is how adeptly R.J. Palacio approaches the grey areas of human nature. Palacio teases out the reasons why even good people make bad choices, and the honesty with which she does so can be cringe inducing. Wonder will remind adult readers of the first time they had to grapple with being cool or being loyal, and the first time they had to stand up and fight for a person they loved. It will have readers laughing one minute and crying the next without ever really figuring out how they got there.

Although Wonder was written for ages 8 and up, R.J. Palacio’s poignant prose will keep adults interested as well. Wonder is a great book to read with kids, particularly if you want to have a discussion about friendship, loyalty or bullying.

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