Study Guide

Wonder Masks

By R.J. Palacio

Masks

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

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.

The Bleeding Scream

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.