'Wonder' review: Be kinder, be stronger

Li Shiyu China Plus Published: 2018-01-26 16:33:53
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This is a small segment of the weekly literary program, Ink&Quill. 

Imagine you are walking down the street, and someone with a severe facial deformity comes into your path, how would you react?

Throw a smile and give a polite nod - or gasp, stare, and then awkwardly avert your gaze?

When New-York based graphic designer R.J.Palacio, also known as Raquel Jaramillo, got caught in a similar situation eleven years ago, her reaction spawned an unexpected result.

R.J.Palacio's debut novel "Wonder" is based on her chance encounter with a little girl with facial defects. [Photo:Courtesy of Shanghai 99]

R.J.Palacio's debut novel "Wonder" is based on her chance encounter with a little girl with facial defects. [Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai 99]

Zhang Xiaoqing, an editor from the publishing house Shanghai 99, explains:"One day, she took out her two sons for ice cream. Outside the ice-cream parlour, they encountered a little girl who appeared to have some facial defects. Her youngest began to cry in fear and her eldest looked stunned."

Trying to protect the girl's feeling, Palacio grabbed her children and fled. Later, she realized that her response might have brought more discomfort to the little girl and her family. 

"That evening, Palacio accidentally heard the song 'Wonder' by Natalie Merchant, which is sung from the perspective of a child born with congenital disease. The song, coupled with the chance meeting earlier, inspired her to put pen to paper. The author wanted to know how a family with such an unusual child could face up to the world," Zhang says that's how thenovel 'Wonder' came into being.

[Cover:Courtesy of Shanghai 99]

[Cover: Courtesy of Shanghai 99]

A New York Times Bestseller, the book "Wonder" recounts a year in the life of August Pullman, or Auggie, as everyone calls him. Suffering from a grave craniofacial condition caused by a rare genetic condition, the ten-year-old has endured 27 operations since birth, which left his face, well, in the boy's own words— "whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."

Home-schooled for years, Auggie is pretty content with staying within the comfort zone created by his family and neighbourhood. But much to his dismay, his parents have decided to pop the bubble and sent him to a mainstream school. That's when the true drama begins to unfold.

In the 2017 film adaptation of Wonder, students dart away in the face of Auggie. [Photo:IC]

In the 2017 film adaptation of Wonder, students dart away in the face of Auggie. [Photo: IC]

Inevitably, Auggie's first year at Beecher Prep has been rough. Just like his father once gave away in an unguarded moment, being at school for Auggie is like "a lamb in a slaughter." Due to his unique appearance, the boy has been mocked, bullied, isolated and once betrayed by peers whom he had once considered friends. Kids in school even create a cruel game called "Plague," where children would be infected with disease if they touched Auggie.

To certain readers, the school bullying narrative in the book might go beyond the pale of the usual light-hearted and giddily happy children's stories.

Yet Zhang Xiaoqing, editor of the Chinese edition of "Wonder," reasons that despite the heart-wrenching and brutally realistic descriptions of bullying at school, the novel is overall uplifting with no pity or moral judgement.

"Sometimes, parents tend to believe that school is some sort of sterile, harmless incubator. But in fact, school is a miniature society inundated with diverse conflicts. Children can be vicious-but they don't mean to hurt others; so careful guidance from adults, as well as given love and tolerance can dispel the malice and set things right," Zhang says. 

August "Auggie" Pullman, played by Jacob Tremlay, and his mother Isbael, portrayed by Julia Roberts, in the 2017 movie Wonder.[Photo:IC]

August "Auggie" Pullman, played by Jacob Tremlay (right), and his mother Isbael, portrayed by Julia Roberts(left), in the 2017 movie Wonder.[Photo:IC]

Self-conscious, wary, emotional, but also hopeful, Auggie has gradually found courage to face the gauntlet of the fifth grade. As the boy gingerly stumbles his way into the complicacy of friendship and boyhood, it's difficult not to feel empathy for this bright, playful young thing. After all, he is just an ordinary kid trying to fit in. With every page that turns, every tiny change that Auggie makes, our feeling shifts from heart-broken to happy and proud as if riding an emotional roller coaster.

But "Wonder" doesn't solely focus on Auggie. Through an ever-changing first person narrative, we also get to experience the eventful life of our ten-year-old hero through the eyes of others, including his elder sister, classmates, and other kids he encounters. As R.J. Palacio meticulously highlights the nuances and complexities of the mind-set of each character, readers not only better understand Auggie from a panoramic perspective, but also have the opportunity to zoom into the inner state of a family, bullies, and bystanders around the victim of bullying.

The Via chapter in the Chinese edition of "Wonder" [Photo:Courtesy of Shanghai 99]

The Via chapter in the Chinese edition of "Wonder" [Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai 99]

Editor Zhang Xiaoqing argues taht if the story was merely told from Auggie's perspective, readers would be subject to his opinion and fail to see the whole picture. "Since the story is told from many points of view, we are allowed to see many facets of many incidents," She says.

She also makes an example: "In the book, Halloween becomes a defining moment for Auggie. Thanks to Palacio's multiple narrative approach, the whole incident is able to be examined through the voices of Auggie, his classmate Summer, and his friend-turned-bully Jack. And in that chapter of Jack, his family background is explained, which allows us to better understand his personality. I have to say the writer has a knack for depicting the inner world of children."

Via by Izabela Vidovic in the 2017 film edition of Wonder.[Photo: IC]

Via by Izabela Vidovic in the 2017 film edition of Wonder.[Photo: IC]

But one of the segment that is really worth mentioning is that about Auggie's big sister Via. A caring teenage girl, she adores her baby brother and is fiercely protective of him, but at the same time, she also feels neglected by her parents. When we are moved by Auggie's endeavour and bright personality, Via's frustration, loss, and guilt are also too painful to be ignored. When people tend to listen to the tales of unique individuals facing tremendous obstacles, the cry of those ordinary ones also ring true to us.

"Just like what she said in the book, her brother Auggie is the Sun. She and her parents are 'planets orbiting the Sun.' What she has gone through kind of reminds me of the similar situation in China. Since the release of the two-child policy, many households are having a second, and even a third child. Under most circumstances, parents would focus more on children who appear to be weaker and need more affection and care. Deprived of enough attention from parents, the other child might experience unfairness and a sense of alienation, which should raise awareness of parents."

The poster of "Wonder".[Picture:IC]

The poster of "Wonder"[Picture: IC]

An emotional tour-de-force that inspire both children and adults, Palacio's "Wonder" has become an international bestseller, selling five million copies worldwide since 2012. The author has also published several follow-up stories, which emphasize on the themes of kindness, tolerance and empathy. A name-sake film, starring Jacob Tremblay from Room and Hollywood veterans Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, was also screened worldwide in 2017.

Hailed by mainstream media as a book that "would make grown men weep", "Wonder" has even inspired the Choose Kindness movement to encourage fans and readers of all ages to join the fight against bullying and practice random acts of kindness every day.

Auggie stands up against bullies much stronger than him in the 2017 movie Wonder.[Photo: IC]

Auggie stands up against bullies much stronger than him in the 2017 movie Wonder.[Photo: IC]

When asked what creates the book's tremendous success, editor Zhang Xiaoqing replied:

"I think this book queries our inner self and raises some soul-crushing questions, such as how to choose kindness and whether we can genuinely embrace our own imperfections and those of others."

She says that what makes R.J Palacio a great writer is that she sends a simple yet very profound message. 

"More often than not, choosing kindness is not easy. Sometimes, you need to give up or sacrifice something. But once you choose to be kind, the joy you experience is indelible."

For previous episodes, you can download the podcast by searching the keyword Ink&Quill on iTunes.

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