Book Review: "Wonder" by RJ Palacio

By Sierra Sanchez, MS, LMFT

How a book about starting middle school relates to every stage in one’s life.

“The best way to measure how much you've grown isn't by inches or the number of laps you can now run around the track, or even your grade point average-- though those things are important, to be sure. It's what you've done with your time, how you've chosen to spend your days, and whom you've touched this year. That, to me, is the greatest measure of success.”

 --RJ Palacio, Wonder

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I recently finished the book “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio about a boy named August, who was born with facial deformity, who begins middle school.  What struck me most was how similar the stories of middle school can be with the stories of life. When I think of middle school--I think of the confusion, the quietness, the awkwardness, and the over processing brain, while the intense need and desire to fit in begins. All of this is beautifully displayed in a book about how August’s “appearance” affects those around him. While one could say that the book is about middle school, I would say it’s about life. About everyone’s perspective of being different and finding oneself.  In middle school and high school it can be about whether or not to fit in; to join the group or not to. The thing is- the pressure and desire to fit in doesn’t end there. It can begin every time there is a new change, a new school, a new job. From a psychological perspective, this can drive the question of  “Who Am I”? How do I reconcile who I am, and feel self worth, if I am the person being discriminated against (a boy with the facial deformities, someone with mental illness, someone who is “different”)?

 This story was a fresh take of what it means to be looked at differently. How true that can be for anyone who is different. In some cases that can be true of someone with mental health issues. “Oh you have bipolar or you are an alcoholic. No thank you.” It can be a difficult process for anyone to be dismissed simply because they experience mental health problems, and something that comes up with many of my clients.  I wonder if any one of us were this main character or a supporting character, could we see just how human we all are? The lessons in this book could be ones we all face on a daily, weekly, monthly and lifetime basis.

Here are some of the areas of growth that are brought up in this refreshing book:

  • Fear, courage and taking action: At first it can be scary to start something new and anxiety can keep someone stuck. The challenge: to stay stuck or move. Sometimes it just takes the smallest action to make a change. Even with taking the action the anxiety may still be there, maybe even the whole time. Even with the anxious thoughts the bigger picture is taking action anyway. What this does is reinforce one’s ability to overcome the thoughts, to not let the thoughts dominate your behavior. You may still be anxious. But you still took action which can be evidence that life can get better over time. Sometimes action leads to a more positive thought, which leads to more action and another positive thought. Pretty soon the negative thoughts can still be there but the positive thoughts and actions have more volume and say so.  Every time August walks down his school hall way, his fellow students stare at him, elbow their peers, jump out of his way, talk with their hands covering their words while staring at him and make little “uh!” sounds when he walks by. Yet August still went to school almost every day because he wanted to. His attitude towards the staring was hey “I know I’m weird looking, take a look, I don’t bite.  August over hears a close friend, who is a classmate, say “If I looked like him, I think I’d kill myself.” August did not go back to school for two days and seriously pondered whether he would return to school. But his sister tells him everyone has bad days, hates school and if he wants to have a normal life, that life is not a contest of who’s life sucks more but that “you just have to suck it up and go.” August ended up returning to school. Eventually he was able to talk to his classmate about what he over heard.

  • Kindness:  Would not most of us say we are kind? This book is about being “more kind than necessary” as quoted from another book in this book. What is kindness? I think to be kind is to have compassion for every part of us, even our imperfections.  Whether we are born with a facial deformity, have a mental illness or are just having a bad day. This is about self kindness. Kindness begins with the self so we learn how to display it and can then treat others with such kindness.  Jack’s initial reaction of being asked by the school principal to welcome August to middle school is “no”. Jack had previously seen August a few years before and was scared of his face. However Jack chooses to be on the welcoming committee due to his realization someone with August’s face is “a kid like that doesn’t stand a chance in school.” Jack later becomes friends with August because if he had to choose any friend in middle school he would choose August.  Summer sits next to August in the cafeteria the first day of school when no one else will. Summer sits with August even when invited to join her friends at the girls only table. Summer is asked why she sits next to “the freak” and is called “a saint” for sitting next to him. Summer’s belief is “it’s hard enough being the new kid even when you have a “normal” face.” Summer likes August’s friendship because he is nice and does not pretend to be someone he is not.

  • Fitting in versus being yourself: The story has me thinking about starting something new and fitting in. This is not always about fitting in with the popular crowd but how to fit into one’s own life. Because whenever any of us start something new, i.e. a new school, a new job, move to a new city, begin a relationship, there can be an adjustment period. Am I going to be myself here all at once, do I only show one side of myself or do I mold myself to what I think others think I should be? Showing the whole of who we are is wonderful. And becoming truly who we are already can be anywhere from a daunting to an exciting task. It can be an incredible day when we are so comfortable with who we are that we can show others who we are. Because we can then surround ourselves with people that embrace our uniqueness.  Summer is invited to a Halloween party by the most popular girl at the school. Summer is told she can be “popular” if she didn’t hang out with August. Summer leaves the party early because she feels uncomfortable and she genuinely likes August. Summer continues to ignore the popular girls, and spends her lunches and some afternoons with August working on school project.  At some point Jack decides to expand his friendships with other students. Jack realizes he could be popular but he realizes “I don’t enjoy the popular crowd” and he actually really likes hanging out with August.

One of the wonderful parts of therapy is to have a therapist who sees all the sides of someone and is non-judgmental.  This is my aspiration each and every day, to help my clients to cope with their fears, develop self-kindness and self-acceptance and embrace authenticity. I wish for all of mankind to have the experience of being an integrated person, and show their true selves to everyone around them, to be truly accepted.