In Wonder, Auggie's family is loving, funny, protective, and supportive—and everyone who knows the Pullmans can see what a nurturing and caring family they are. (For contrast, check out what Miranda and Justin say about their families.) But for Auggie to find his place in the world, he has to actually get out there and interact with it, and both his parents and sister push him, at certain points of the story, to leave his comfort zone to make this happen. Through all his struggles along the way, his family is always there to comfort him, to shore him up, to encourage and support him, and to celebrate his victories.
When the going gets tough, the Pullmans start cracking jokes. This family culture gives Auggie—and the reader—some comic relief even when things get really heavy.
While the Pullman family members are very loving and nurturing, Via still gets short-changed in all sorts of ways. She both accepts and resents this dynamic.
Since a person's face is pretty much their primary, uh, interface with the world, appearances are inevitably going to be a big theme in Wonder, a story about a kid with a cranio-facial genetic mutation.
Most of us are not often confronted with a person whose appearance is dramatically different, and it can be a startling experience, as we see from most people's reactions to Auggie's face. We're right there with Auggie as he describes the surprise, shock, horror, fear, and disgust he sees.
The web site for the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction says, "No condition impacts the body and the spirit as equally as facial difference," and August gives readers a glimpse into this experience. He hates his appearance, and desperately wishes he were normal. He hides. He mumbles. He suffers. But he hangs tough, and along the way he learns to hold his head up and be seen for who he is. He learns that he has to accept the way he looks, and that others can too.
Don't judge a book—or a boy—by its cover.
Though appearances are superficial, because the impact our lives so significantly, they end up also impacting our personalities.
August hasn't had hordes of friends over the course of his life, but he's well-liked by the friends he does have, and warmly loved by his family. So he's not lonely, per se, but he is pretty socially isolated. What isolates August?
August likes the idea of going to school and having friends, but not at the cost of being the lightning rod for every stare ever. But the thing is that he doesn't have that many people to interact with otherwise.
Ironically, it is when August is surrounded by kids his own age that he becomes most isolated. Kids are so freaked out by his face that they cannot bring themselves to overlook it. They pack up together, formalizing their aversion with a "game" in which anybody that touches August risks The Plague.
But even though Auggie is socially isolated at school, he's wholly loved and supported at home—unlike Justin and Miranda, who both describe painful emotional isolation within their families. In Wonder, isolation doesn't always lurk where you expect it to.
To protect himself from rejection, August has developed a lot of coping strategies that protect him, but also contribute to his isolation.
Misunderstanding is the root of isolation in Wonder.
Auggie's friendships with Summer and Jack save him from total isolation and misery at school, but each friendship comes about differently and follows a different trajectory. Being Auggie's friend is easy because Auggie is a fun, nice kid, but it's also hard because there are social penalties for hanging out with the kid who is not like the others.
Both Summer and Jack are regularly challenged by their peers over their friendship with August in Wonder. But while Summer consistently and reflexively defends Auggie, Jack takes longer to learn the value of his friendship with Auggie. He reaps all the benefits of having a good friend, but makes none of the sacrifices, at one point even denying the friendship.
But Jack isn't a total jerk. When he realizes how deeply his thoughtless words have hurt August, he asks for Auggie's forgiveness and re-evaluates his priorities. Through the process of rebuilding that relationship, Jack learns the meaning of true friendship.
Mr. Tushman's efforts to secure some friends for Auggie are pointless. Only one out of three kids really becomes Auggie's friend, and another one out of the three becomes his relentless bully. Auggie would have been better off without Mr. Tushman's help.
Jack's priorities change over the course of his friendship with Auggie; Summer's do not.
Wonder is a love song to simple, basic kindness. It takes so little kindness to make such a big difference. Kindness can be like a domino, with a single act toppling into another until a new friendship forms, knocking down isolation, sadness, and suffering as it grows.
But you don't have to take our word for it. Mr. Tushman himself breaks it down quite nicely:
If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God. (8.A Simple Thing.23)
Charlotte is nice. Summer is kind. Kindness is more than just being nice.
It is harder to be kind than to be mean because kindness requires vulnerability.
There are various shades of courage in Wonder:
Terrifying: August going to middle school.
Risky: Having lunch with a kid who looks like August even though your friends don't want you to.
Persevering: Going to school day in and day out even though almost no one talks to you, or is even allowed to accidentally bump into you without catching the plague.
Terrifying: seeing your infant for the first time who has been born with such serious birth defects that he is not even expected to survive.
Risky: Agreeing to befriend the new kid at school before you've met him.
Persevering: Going back to school after the person you think is your best friend claims you're just a pesky tag-along.
Yup—courage abounds in this book.
Some situations call for very public acts of courage, while others require people to reach deep into their hearts to draw upon the courage of their character. In Wonder, both appear.
Jack thinks he's terrifically brave to become friends with Auggie, but he's too scared to commit this nugget to paper. Auggie, on the other hand, never describes anything he does as particularly courageous, and yet it must take bucket-loads of courage for him to face the world every single day.
"Arriving at Adolescence" might be a slightly more apt description of this particular theme, since the kids in Auggie's class at Beecher Prep are only around ten and eleven years old. But even though they aren't exactly nearing adulthood (which is what we'd expect for "Coming of Age"), they are in a major transition from childhood to adolescence. And it's a perfectly tumultuous time in its own right. (Not to be overlooked, Via and her friends in high school are all dealing with painful growing up stuff, too.)
In Wonder, what we're treating as a coming-of-age-type feat is Auggie's transition from the very warm, sheltered cocoon of his family to, well, the merciless halls of middle school. Will Auggie survive, or will he a doomed lamb to the slaughter?
Kids in Wonder make changes on the outside that help them express inner change to the world.
Auggie's Star Wars obsession signifies his childhood tendency to live in a fantasy world rather than the real one. When he cuts off his Padawan braid, it is a statement that he's leaving one world and entering another.
What does it take to live a principled life? Self-knowledge? Courage? Maturity? Discipline? It all depends on what principles you're trying to live by.
In Wonder,as the kids in fifth grade at Beecher Prep have their world rocked by the appearance of August Pullman, how are their individual principles challenged or reinforced?
Summer is the poster child for the principles of kindness and loyalty. Julian is inexplicably and consistently hostile. Because of people like Julian, Jack knows he has to help Auggie, and he does—but he holds back. Worried about his social status, Jack sits on the fence regarding his friendship with Auggie until it's almost too late to save the friendship at all.
Meanwhile Auggie's sister Via and her former bestie Miranda find themselves alienated from each other as high school begins. Via's remained true to herself, but Miranda has taken a hiatus from who she has been to explore not only other principles, but also other identities.
No matter where you turn in this book, principles are in the mix.
It's safer to hang with the herd than to stand up for one's principles, but ultimately it is a lot more rewarding to take risks on doing what you know is right.
A person's principles are the foundation of their identity.
The Who sum up the question best with "Who Are You?"—and they really want to know. So do we.
Identity is always a big deal in coming-of-age stories, and Wonder is no exception. As August starts middle school, he has to figure out how to bridge the gap between what kind of person he feels like (ordinary), and what kind of person the world sees him as (anything but ordinary). How will he convince the world to see beyond his face?
Auggie has to figure out how to be simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary.
All the adolescent characters in Wonder are honing their identities, but Summer is the farthest along in the process.
That after twenty-seven surgeries Auggie can still be an upbeat kid who likes to ride his bike and skateboard makes him kind of a wonder.
That he still bothers to interact with people after ten years of being stared at, gasped over, whispered about, pointed to, and screamed at also makes him kind of a wonder.
And that he wins over the sympathy, loyalty, and friendship of all but one kid in the fifth grade definitely makes him a wonder.
As much as Auggie survives—even triumphs—in Wonder, he suffers too. He is treated like a freak by strangers, shunned by his classmates, betrayed by his best friend, and made to suffer a lifetime of his dad's cornball humor. (That last one he's okay with.) He wishes for and laments the normal life he has never had and never will have, and he struggles to keep his dignity and self-esteem through all the shocked reactions. But man, he does not give up—no matter how much he suffers.
What hurts Auggie the most isn't the Plague game, or the ignoring, or the staring—it is his friend Jack's betrayal.
Family, friends, kindness, and principles can all help us not only endure, but also overcome suffering.