When we meet Auggie, he's a pretty wistful little guy. He says:
If I found a magic lamp and I would have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. (1.Ordinary.2)
Hmm. When someone's big wish is simply to be ordinary, it's a strong tipoff that he is anything but. In Auggie's case, he has a serious facial difference—and he wishes all the time that he didn't.
Auggie thinks about going to school now that he's stronger and more medically stable. Holding him back is the feeling that "What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like every other kid going to school. Have lots of friends and hang out after school and stuff like that" (1.Why I Didn't Go To School.3). But he knows this won't actually happen, and as the story unfolds, we witness a number of painful moments when Auggie wishes the opposite were true.
From the very beginning of Auggie's life, we see how the Pullman family relies on humor to help them through painful situations. Rather than remember only how terrifying and sad it must have been to not know if your baby would live through the night, Auggie's mom tells the story of Auggie's birth in a way that makes him and Via crack up every time. As Auggie explains:
It's not funny in the way a joke is funny, but when Mom tells it, Via and I just start cracking up. (1.How I Came To Life.1)
Mom's story doesn't leave out the absolute silence in the room when everyone sees Auggie's face, or the shattered video camera, or the doctor who passes out from shock—it doesn't sugarcoat the moment. But from all that pain, she manages to extract the parts that let people laugh. This is how the Pullmans roll.
But Mom doesn't have a monopoly on humor, and Auggie says his dad, Nate, is always cracking people up too. He makes Auggie laugh, joking about Mr. Tushman's name, while Auggie is trying to stay anti-school, and when he does, the mood in the car completely shifts: "I started laughing, not even because I thought he was being that funny but because I wasn't in the mood to stay mad anymore."
Since the Pullmans use humor as a tool to navigate the trickier parts of the lives, this book is speckled with plenty of funny moments too.
The narrators in Wonder are all very open. They may not want everyone in the world to know everything they are feeling, but they certainly want us to know. They want to explain their actions, and to understand why they do the things they do; they want to be heard and understood, to figure out why they are or are not liked, and how this relates to the bigger questions of who they are and what life is all about. So they pour their hearts out.
Jack's section has some great examples of this confessional tone. When he realizes why Auggie no longer talks to him, he says:
It's just that I knew Julian and everybody thought I was so weird for hanging out with August all the time, and I felt stupid. And I don't know why I said that stuff. I just was going along. I was stupid. I am stupid. Oh God. (4.In Science.9)
He realizes how hurtful his words must have been to Auggie, and he doesn't give himself any breaks. Jack rakes himself over the coals reexamining his behavior and attitude toward Auggie. And when Auggie and Summer are the only kids who will speak to him after Julian destroys his social life, Jack recognizes, "Okay, I'm a total hypocrite. I know" (4.Why I Didn't Sit With August the First Day of School.1), which is an acknowledgment that Auggie is showing him a kindness that he opted not to show Auggie on the first day of school.
Over and over in this book we get the good with the bad as our different narrators clue us into their thought processes and insecurities.
Since Wonder is all about ten-year-old August Pullman's struggle for acceptance in middle school, it definitely fits into the young adult lit category. From trying to be popular to just trying to fit in, and from the lunch room to the playground, all the kids—not just Auggie—are trying to figure out who they are and how they want the world to know them.
The coming of age aspect of the book centers on Auggie transitioning from the sheltered culture of homeschooling that he's always known to mainstream, private school fifth grade. He has to stop hiding his face from the world in order to navigate complicated social terrain he's never experienced before, and figure out how to handle both friends and foes with courage, kindness, humor, and dignity.
Are you wondering what the title of this book is all about? Worry not—Shmoop is here to help.
Wonder works on a couple of levels. And while the significance of the title is deepened greatly as the story unfolds, right away it tips us off to a couple of key facets to this book. We know immediately that we are going to be in unusual territory because one thing that wonder indicates is something remarkable. We also know before cracking the cover that we may experience awe as we read—that is, we may find ourselves in a state of wonder. And lastly, we get tipped off to the fact that we just might encounter an exceptional human being, since they are often called wonders.
And, of course, all of this comes true as we read. Want to think on this some more? Here's a link to a very thorough dictionary definition for your consideration.
Auggie's mom whispers in his ear, "You really are a wonder Auggie. You are a wonder," and when she does, she's marveling at how beautifully August has adapted to middle school despite having had a year full of struggle and suffering. He has learned to fight his own battles. He has earned friendship and admiration from people who at first couldn't even handle the idea of accidentally brushing against him. And most importantly, he has accomplished everything simply being himself.
The Pullman family lives in a town house in present day Upper Manhattan in New York City. Auggie's middle school, Beecher Prep, is within walking distance from home. Via's school, on the other hand, is "a bit of a schlep […]. The A train down to Eighty-Sixth, then the crosstown bus all the way to the East Side. Takes an hour that way but it's just a fifteen minute drive" (1.The Deal.23). This is a familiar lament for just about any kid who's grown-up in a city.
By and large, families that send their kids to Beecher Prep (which is a private middle school) are educated and upper-class, though not uniformly. As Jack explains, "My parents are not rich. I say this because people sometimes think that everyone who goes to private school is rich, but that isn't true with us." His neighborhood is "all the way on the 'other' side of Broadway. That's 'code' for the section of North River Heights where people don't want to park their cars" (4. Private School.1). Yup—definitely not a rich kid.
Also at Beecher Prep are families like Julian's family, "who everyone knows is rich," who spend Christmas in Paris so often their kids are sick of it and who buy their kids $800 sleds from Hammacher Schlemmer. It is private school, after all.
Given their general family backgrounds and their collective hometown—one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the world—do you find it surprising that these kids aren't a little hipper and more tolerant of differences? Does the need for conformity at this age, perhaps, override their ability to be more accommodating?
Doctors have come from distant cities
Just to see me
Stand over my bed
Disbelieving what they're seeing
The say I must be one of the wonders
Of god's own creation
And as far as they can see they can offer
At some point in time, some doctor explained to Auggie's parents that "the odds of someone getting the same combination of syndromes that came together to make Auggie's face were like one in four million" (5.The Universe.3). In other words, it makes no sense that anyone should suffer such a random genetic fluke—there's "no explanation."
Except that there actually is a great deal of explanation, and from a great many doctors at that. Check it out:
Sometimes these mutations occur during pregnancy. Sometimes they're inherited from one parent carrying the dominant gene. Sometimes they're caused by the interaction of many genes, possibly in combination with environmental factors. (2.Genetics 101.4)
Okay, so there's genetic counseling and Punnett Squares that offer explanation a-plenty for how—but not for why. Why remains a bit of a loose thread:
This only explains the part of August that's explainable. There's that other part of his genetic makeup that's not inherited but just incredibly bad luck. (2.The Punnett Square.4)
Thought we could just shrug and walk away from the mystery of Auggie's condition? Not so fast. There's that little mention of God in the epigraph—and because of this, we think Palacio is suggesting that God created Auggie. And, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, this means Auggie is just fine the way he is.
Wonder is a page-turner, a literary piece of cake so sweet that you might want to brush your teeth when you finish it. It's super accessible, immediately relatable, and tremendously uplifting. The hardest thing about reading it might actually be maintaining any emotional distance from the story—it's probably pointless to even try. So dig in.
Reading Wonder is a little like getting to read excerpts from six different diaries. And though Auggie's story gets expanded by each different narrator, the narrators always start out by talking about something important to him or her. It's so effective: simultaneous plot and character development.
The first thing Auggie talks about, is—surprise, surprise—how his appearance impacts his life. Check it out:
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. (1.Ordinary.1)
Auggie doesn't mince words. He tells us, often with wry awareness, what's what. "My name is August, by the way. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." Right out of the gates, Auggie lays all his cards on the table.
Via, on the other hand, is more complicated. She makes a big point of saying, "I'm used to the way this universe works. I've never minded it because it's all I've ever known. I've always understood that August is special and has special needs" (2.A Tour of the Galaxy.2). Via definitely loves her brother, and she does understand, but at the same time, the impact of his condition on her life has not been minor.
While swearing up and down how she totally gets it, Via is also quietly pointing out the unfairness of having had her healthy kid needs totally eclipsed by Auggie's medical needs. She explains:
I've gotten used to figuring things out on my own: how to put toys together, how to organize my life so I don't miss friends' birthday parties, how to stay on top of my schoolwork so I never fall behind in class.
There's nothing confusing about this passage: Via's had to take care of Via, as her parents have been maxed out taking care of Auggie.
Another way to think about the writing style in Wonder is like this: it's a story told by and about kids. Which is pretty much a guarantee that the tone is going to be pretty simple—the point in writing for kids is to have them enjoy reading, not despise it. And a great way to turn kids away from a book is to make it too complicated to really get into.
Plus, since Wonder is always in the first person, we get direct access to the thoughts and feelings of several of the characters—and the thing about thoughts is that they're unmediated, which makes them come across as pretty conversational. We don't know about you, but Shmoop doesn't think in fancy or formal language as a general rule—we're more like We're gonna eat that orange than We believe we shall commence consumption of that spherical reddish-yellow fruit—and neither do any of the kids in Wonder. Thank goodness.
Our boy Auggie has an ongoing relationship with things that hide his face, starting with his astronaut helmet and—in the book—ending with his Bleeding Scream mask. And while we can quickly recognize that his fondness for things that hide his face is directly connected to the ways in which he looks different from other kids, masks play such an important role in this book that we're going to take a moment to look at each one separately.
The astronaut helmet represents Auggie's desire to hide from the world, and it gives him a little, er, space from all the gawkers out there. It is the first thing Auggie uses to control when people can see him, which is pretty fitting since that's exactly what astronauts use their helmets for too: control. Astronauts wear their helmets to make little safe spaces for themselves amongst the endless and inhospitable expanse of outer space, and in his own way, Auggie does the same.
The thing is, though, while it's true that people didn't stare at Auggie when he wore his helmet, they also didn't talk to him. This means that the helmet serves as both a refuge and a self-imposed isolation—the astronaut helmet cuts Auggie off from the world as effectively as being in outer space. So while there are understandable benefits to slipping on the helmet, we also see that Auggie uses it as a way to avoid having to engage with the world around him.
Fortunately Auggie's dad misses his son's face so much that he secretly throws away the helmet, bringing his young astronaut reluctantly back to earth. And in doing so, we understand that the helmet was a tool for a kid, and that now Auggie's growing up.
Auggie's relationship with masks is symbolic of his struggle to accept his appearance. He says:
I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks. (1.Costumes.1)
All Auggie wants is a fighting chance to reveal who he is on the inside before anyone gets a look at him. So many people judge him based on his appearance without bothering to get to know him at all—and Halloween offers him a chance to hope for a little bit more.
Halloween is the one day each year that Auggie gets the gift of anonymity, when hiding his face behind a mask is a totally normal thing to do; it's the day Auggie gets a little break from his usual reality. As he cruises the halls in his Bleeding Scream costume on Halloween, Auggie notes:
Everything was different now. I was different. Where I usually walked with my head down, trying to avoid being seen, today I walked with my head up, looking around. I wanted to be seen. (1.The Bleeding Scream.1)
The key detail, of course, is that it is in his mask that Auggie wants to be seen. It is only while hidden that he dares to stand tall and risk being noticed. And while this might strike us as readers as really sad, for Auggie the day is pretty uplifting, particularly when a kid wearing the same mask high-fives him. That simple gesture, a rare celebration of sameness, feels fantastic for Auggie—but with his typical perceptiveness, Auggie later observes:
I have no idea who he was, and he had no idea who I was, and I wondered for a second if he would have ever done that if he'd known it was me under the mask. (1.The Bleeding Scream.1)
In other words, we as readers aren't the only ones who recognize this victory as a small one—Auggie does too. A mask may hide his features, but it doesn't keep him from himself.
While we can see Auggie enjoying the anonymity his Halloween costume offers him, there's a downside to people interacting with him in ways they ordinarily do not. Unaware that Auggie is around, Jack says some pretty mean things about his friend that he'd never have said to his face (we don't think), which almost completely destroys their friendship. It also gives us another layer of meaning to masks: while hiding physical appearances, they allow people's true colors to be seen.
Via describes her family as a universe in which August is the sun, with everyone else revolving around him. While the metaphor aptly describes the mechanics of their family (they do all generally fret over August), it also suggests Via's larger sense of powerlessness—the universe is fixed, the system is unchangeable. Just look at the epigraph for her section of the book:
Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.
But there's something else that's important to think about with Via's universe metaphor. While it's easy to assume that everyone orbiting around Auggie is just a bad thing, the comparison of him to the sun also suggests that he's the main source of light in their lives—or at least in Via's life, since this is her metaphor we're hanging out with. And since the sun illuminates the world, we can also see Via acknowledging that her understanding of the world around her is illuminated by having Auggie as her brother. In short, this symbol—like family—is complicated.
But wait. Check out this other thing that Via says too:
But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos. The galaxy is changing. Planets are falling out of alignment. (2.A Tour of the Galaxy.5)
So while it all might feel larger than life for Via, she can also sense that it's going to be a big year for the Pullman family. Things may have been following one course for quite a while now, but she's off to high school and Auggie's ending his time as a home schooled kid, and that means it's time to reorient. So long as the Pullman's stick together, we think they'll find their way just fine.
In Star Wars, a Jedi apprentice (Padawan) wears a small braid. Auggie spent many Star Wars-obsessed years growing his own Padawan braid, and he and his best childhood friend Christopher each had a braid complete with beads they had chosen together. Alas, the braid has to go after the first day of school because it turns out to be a lightning rod for unwanted attention from Julian.
It takes Auggie a while to be able to articulate the idea, but he realizes it is time to rework his image now that he is in middle school—and part of that process involves not being a one-note Star Wars kid. The Padawan braid represents Auggie's younger childhood interests and fantasies. His friend Christopher has moved away, their friendship has drifted into the past. Auggie's concerns are now much more to do with the real world than with his Jedi training, and whacking off the braid signals a concrete, intentional separation from those years.
In Star Wars, Padawan's cut off their braids when they become official Jedi Knights, so we can also see Auggie's decision to cut off his braid as symbolic of him coming into his own. He is ready to find his place in the world. And middle school is where this next leg of his journey begins.
Wonder is narrated in the first person throughout… but that doesn't mean it's the same person guiding us from start to finish. Instead—and pretty uniquely—each part of this book features a different narrator. Like a movie that is filmed with a whole bunch of cameras, R.J. Palacio gives us different angles from six different narrators over the course of eight parts:
Part 1: August
Part 2: Via
Part 3: Summer
Part 4: Jack
Part 5: Justin
Part 6: August
Part 7: Miranda
Part 8: August
In the FAQ section of her web page, R.J. Palacio admits that she didn't expect to craft a novel with multiple narrators when she began—Wonder is, of course, Auggie's story first and foremost—but as she wrote, she says:
I started getting very curious about Via and what she was going through in her life, and I wanted to get behind the motivation behind Summer's bravely sitting down with Auggie at lunchtime, or Jack's betrayal, and I knew that to do that, to really explore Auggie's complete story, I would have to leave his head for a while. Auggie's a smart kid, and he notices a lot of things, but he doesn't ever really know the full extent of the impact he has on people.
So each narrator fills in details about facets of Auggie's life: Via reveals a great deal about the Pullman family culture and home life, Summer and Jack give us details about life at school. Justin has only just met August, so his observations and interactions are all in the present, but Miranda has known Auggie since he was a baby, so her narrative gives us lots of info about the past. If it sounds a little dizzying, worry not: Palacio makes changing perspectives like this look easy.
Because of all his medical issues, ten-year-old August Pullman has always been home schooled. Now that he's more medically stable, his parents want him to start school. He likes the idea of school and learning cool stuff, but he totally dreads being the kid everyone stares at.
Auggie has been loved, nurtured, and protected, but now that he is older and stronger (both physically and emotionally), his parents recognize that it is time for him to face the world. Not only does he need to learn fractions and stuff, he also needs to know how to deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we're talking about more than faces, here.
So Auggie starts fifth grade, the first year of middle school at Beecher Prep. Not one to overlook the magnitude of Auggie's transition, school principal Mr. Tushman has recruited three kids to be welcome buddies for August. Jack Will, Charlotte, and Julian give Auggie the school tour.
Jack and Charlotte are nice enough, but Julian can't handle Auggie's uh, non-traditional appearance. Rather than try to get past his discomfort, he keeps his distance with rudeness and mockery, which soon turns into habitual bullying.
Kids at school get used to Auggie's face, but that doesn't mean they accept him—a "game" called the Plague makes Auggie untouchable. But despite being almost universally avoided at school, Auggie makes a couple good friends. Summer Dawson saves him from utter solitude in the lunchroom by sitting with him on the first day of school (and every day since), and they have become good friends. Cool beans.
And as Jack learns to see the Auggie beneath the face, he realizes what a good friend Auggie is. These two joke around together all the time; they're really good friends.
At least, that's what Auggie thinks.
A series of unexpected snafus on the morning of Halloween results in Auggie wearing an alternate costume, which makes him doubly incognito. Since people don't know who it is under his mask, nobody knows to avoid touching him. Or that he can hear them talking about him.
Ever wish you could turn the clock back and un-know something? Sitting anonymously in his last-minute costume, Auggie hears Jack say, "'I've thought about this a lot, […] and I really think… if I looked like him, seriously, I think that I'd kill myself'" (1.The Bleeding Scream.9). Jack goes on to tell Julian that his entire relationship with August has been entirely engineered by Mr. Tushman: Jack is allegedly an unwilling victim of an unwanted friendship. August is devastated.
Jack is bewildered and upset when Auggie dumps him. The boys eventually make up after Jack realizes what happened on Halloween, and punches Julian in the mouth for calling August a freak.
So Julian starts a war, turning nearly all of the fifth grade boys against Jack—for being friends with August.
Okay, it's not really like Fight Club. But there is a fight. And Auggie does want to keep it quiet. So it's Fight Club-ish.
The Beecher Prep fifth graders are enjoying an outdoor movie night at their Nature Retreat. When Jack needs to find the restroom, Auggie accompanies him. A huge line for the bathroom sends the boys in search of relief in the trees.
Unfortunately they bump into a group of older kids looking for trouble, and as soon as they get a look at Auggie, they start flipping out. "No freakin' way, man! No freakin' way! […] What is that?" (8.Alien.5-7). In full bully mode, the kids block Jack and August from leaving as they argue about whether Auggie is more Gollum, orc, or Alien.
It gets worse—one of the kids throws a firecracker at Jack and Auggie; Eddie shoves Jack hard; there is more verbal abuse. Talk about ugly. Luckily three boys from Beecher prep who had also been out in the woods have doubled back to see what the ruckus is. Amos, Miles, and Henry come to the aid of their classmates, calmly trying to defuse the situation—but when Eddie yanks Auggie to the ground by the hood of his hoodie, Amos explodes into action, ramming into Eddie.
In the wake of the fight, Auggie's hurt, frightened, and upset, but he gets that something really big just happened: boys who shunned him all year long have just defended him. They stood up for him and they helped him to safety, suddenly treating him as one of their own. They even high-five him, Shmoopsters.
It's awesome, and it's not just a passing moment. Auggie returns to the fairgrounds flanked on all sides by the boys in his class who have decided to look out for him.
Did you hear about the middle school kid who was able to keep that awkward thing that happened quiet? Of course you didn't—it's probably never happened. Why not? Well, gossip, for starters. And, teachers. You know they have some kind of spooky sixth sense about these things.
So in the end everyone hears about what happened to Auggie in the woods at camp. Everyone hears that Amos, Henry, and Miles protected Auggie. The fight in the woods is a major tipping point, but kids' attitudes toward Auggie had already begun to thaw in the months leading up to camp.
Auggie has simply been himself—a really nice person—all year long. He is patient and long-suffering in the face of rejection, understanding about how hard it must be for others to tolerate his appearance. He cracks jokes at his own expense all the time, and he always gives people the benefit of the doubt and a second chance. His nemesis, Julian, has been pretty much the opposite of that. And kids finally start to get the picture.
Although it probably should have happened a lot sooner, it takes the injustice of senseless violence toward August for it to finally click with everyone that he is just a kid like any other; a kid who doesn't deserve to be tortured for the way he looks.
Earlier in the story, as August joins the audience in a standing ovation for his sister's performance in the school play, he muses, "For a second, I imagined how cool it would be to be Via and Justin right then, having all these people standing up and cheering for them" (6.The Ending.8).
He never imagines that he will end up being the kid on stage for whom everyone is standing and cheering. But on graduation day at Beecher Prep, he is that kid, bowing his head to accept the Henry Ward Beecher medal as the cheering, clapping crowd rises to its feet.
Auggie's made the high honor roll, but the medal he gets isn't for academics—August's award is for the less-quantifiable qualities of character, courage, and greatness, all of which he possesses in spades.