Childhood should be carefree. Sure, there are some stressful things that happen in the birth to tween years: potty training, learning to share, learning to read, getting the word about Santa and the Easter Bunny. Still, by and large it should be all about playing and learning and effortless growing. Adolescence is trying enough without the lead-up to it being painful as well.
August Pullman--Auggie--is ten. He's about to enter the fifth grade but will be attending school for the first time, since his mom has always home-schooled him. Auggie...well, here's what he has to say about himself: I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things...And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go.
Born with a double whammy of genetic malfunction, Auggie's face is severely disfigured, so much so he's had nearly thirty major surgeries in his few short years. Once again, his words. "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."
Wonder--which is, by the way, a wonder of a debut novel--takes the reader through Auggie's fifth grade year, from his learning from his mom and dad he'll be going to school (he's, ah, less than happy about the prospect) through his commencement to sixth grade. Told from the varying points of view of Auggie himself, his sister Via, new to high school with issues of her own, and several of his new friends, the story beautifully portrays what it's like to be a kid who wants to be just another kid.
Auggie's a bit heroic--I mean, how could he manage to get through his days without some heroic qualities?--but hardly perfect. He has tantrums. He's mean to his mom. He shuts out his best friend after a misunderstanding. But the beauty of this story--always moving but never maudlin--is the perseverance of the players. Yes, it's hardest of all to be Auggie, but it's not always easy to be the kid who hangs out with the "freak" at school, or the sister who tells us "August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun."
In the end, the not-at-all preachy lesson that most--though sadly not all--of the kids and parents learn is that true beauty really does lie within, and that kindness may very well be the most important quality a person should strive for.
Although I teared up or outright cried at least half a dozen times while reading Wonder, and although most grown-ups who read it will likely have a similar reaction, the middle-grade kids for whom the book is intended will probably just enjoy a good, well-written story they can relate to. They'll nod knowingly when the popular kids tell Auggie that all the seats are taken at the lunchroom table, and they'll cheer when other kids step up to the challenge and become his friend. There are references to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Star Wars Trilogy, and other touchpoints of popular culture, that will make them feel in on the jokes. Best of all, since the lessons aren't at all heavy-handed they'll be morally uplifted without even realizing it.