This is a young adult story about kindness and identity. Its story can instigate useful conversations in schools and homes about how we treat others, and therefore how we want to be treated. I found some of its presentations of school-life problematic, though.
The book ultimately frames its narrative on desires for in-group success and out-group rejection, with the need for individual success promoted as ideal. Our hero in response to his final acceptance by his peers declares that “there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” Juxtaposed against such familiar sentiments is the approach of the teacher who promotes the more communal values of “Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character.’’ as necessary for ‘Greatness’. While this tension is not foregrounded, I still found the story engagingly realistic in that it tackles ideas about what it is to be accepted into a group or otherwise. To be conventionally ‘normal’ as a Western boy is perhaps to fight and adventure, and Augustus’ desires to do these mark his spirit as aspirationally at-odds with his fragile frame.
The writing itself is well-framed with varied narratives that appreciate the experiences of living with a profound disability from different characters. This is a good example of a text with multiple narrators.
An interesting question that underpins the text is to wonder the extent to which we want to be treated kindly? How do we want to treat the most vulnerable? Set in New York, a notoriously urban and neoliberalist environment, the text presents kindness and compassion as entirely necessary and often lacking. Discussing this in the public discourse of my classes our conclusion was this: we need a supportive network in our private sphere by which we are treated kindly. When we need brutal honesty, that is best delivered by people we trust and usually within a context of wider support and loving words. In the public context outside our private networks, we should expect robust and often combative conversation. If we wish to engage in public discourse, we should not be surprised if people respond to us with abusive and perhaps even disingenuous attacks. The increasingly politicised and toxic discourse promoted for financial benefit by many social media figures relies upon this type of discourse being normalised. It does not look like that will improve any day soon. Instead, we should expect that all of us risk attack and objectification, and we that are likely to be a position less vulnerable than Augustus.
He is courageous in a context that usually is not kind. In that context, he experiences kindness.
So it is that collision of contexts that matters. The idea of being brutally honest and of engaging in an entirely rational context is empowering only if some success is experienced. As a young adult novel, we should expect some resolution at the end. And we have that here.
So Wonder raises questions. It answers them fairly emphatically. But it is still worth recommending and is remarkably moral and realistic. When we accept ourselves and embrace situations that challenge us, our connection to others is enriched. In an increasingly transactional culture for young people, this is an essential message.