Finding Greatness: A Review of ‘Wonder’

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” –from Wonder

Grade Level:

Grades 5-8

Review and Thoughts

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, is one of those great middle elementary books that teaches everyone the struggles and beauties of life and how sometimes they become entwined and we can’t have one without the other.

The story begins with our introduction to August Pullman who has been born with a terrible facial deformity.  In fact, when he is first born, he tells us that the nurses took him away so that his mother couldn’t see him.  He goes on to explain how everyone is so shocked and flustered in the hospital, but when his mother sees him, she notices how beautiful his eyes are and loves him the way any mother would.  And so the book begins with that combination of struggle and beauty and continues throughout.

The novel tells us of August leaving his homeschool to go to a nearby private school.  His face has kept him home for many years, but his mother feels that now is the time for him to go to a school so that can further his education.  August is introduced to some fellow students at his new middle school who help to show him around.  These three students show him around his new campus, but remain stand-offish and so August begins school relatively alone.

The first days of school are difficult as most students stay away from him.  Kids who aren’t in class with him are afraid when they see him, and most kids don’t even want to sit by him in the classroom.  August, however, is used to this behavior and continues to go to class every day.  Slowly he befriends Jack Will, one of the boys who originally showed him around, and a girl named Summer, who sits with him at lunch.

Things are looking up for August until Halloween when he accidentally hears his friend Jack Will saying he would rather die than look the way August looks.  This betrayal hurts August and he refuses to talk to Jack for a long time.

From this point, the story switches perspectives.  We hear from his sister Via who tells all about her life with August since he was a baby.  Though August has many struggles, readers are told about Via’s frustrations and difficulties as well.  She is often forgotten and has learned how to suffer silently because she knows everyone else is having a hard time as well.

We also hear the perspective of Jack Will and Summer as they share their lives before August and their thoughts about meeting, getting to know, and accepting August.  We hear from Via’s new boyfriend and an old childhood friend who each share interesting perspectives as someone who has gotten to know August recently and someone who has known August since childhood respectively.  Each perspective opens us to the story of August and allows us to see how he has affected everyone around him, for better and/or worse.

The final section of the book returns to August’s perspective.  After healing his close relationships, most importantly the one with Jack Will, he goes on a sleep-away trip with his class.  While he is there he is bullied by some bigger kids from another school.  Some of the boys from his own class, who are usually mean to him, come to his defense.  This is the turning point of the novel.  For the first time, his own classmates come to his aid.  He is no longer a ‘freak’ and everyone can see past his physical face and look at who he is as a person.

This novel exquisitely  shows readers that life is messy but there is so much beauty everywhere.  Nothing is perfect and each person grows and matures in their own way by being touched by the life of August.  It is a great beginning for a  discussions of the value of each and every human life and how we all affect each other.

Possible Concerns

  • The nurse who delivers August farts, a lot, as told by his mother.
  • Summer discusses what she thinks about heaven and describes it as a place where a person’s soul goes for a bit and then comes back for a do-over.
  • Heaven is discussed again later as a ‘nice’ place, but there is no mention of God.
  • The boys are bullied in the woods when Jack Will goes out there to pee.

Further Discussion

  • August is constantly bullied by other kids because of his appearance. Have you ever judged someone before you’ve gotten to know them?  How could you make someone who looks different feel more comfortable?
  • Summer is brave enough to sit with August when no one else will. Find a story of another young teen who has stood up for what is right despite being judged by others.
  • What quote do you think is important and/or inspirational and should be reflected on regularly?

Catholic Resources

  • Learn more about Saint Gerard Majella who is the patron saint of birth defects.
  • Who is someone you know who could use a “friend”?  Consider something nice you could do for that person.
  • Read CCC 2208 about a family’s responsibility to care for it’s members.
  • Read CCC 2276 about caring for those who are weakened and handicapped.
  • The students collect quotes all year and keep them in a notebook.  Make a list of your favorite scriptures and keep them in a notebook.  Choose your favorite and make it into a bookmark.
  • What is a Catholic response to bullying?  Read the answer from this article from Huffington Post: “Catholic Social Teaching and Bullying: A Call to Action”
  • Watch this anti-bullying video from Anti-Bullying Learning and Teaching Resource (ALTER) Catholic Education Office: 

General Teaching Resources

  • Keep your eyes open for the release of the movie!  It should be out this year!