What I Love about R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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Penguin Random House Books

I finished reading Wonder in March, but I can’t stop thinking about this book. I’ve recommended it to more people than I can keep track of. The ones who’ve read it get back to me and thank me for recommending it. The book is just that good. This book resonated with me for several reasons. First, I grew up in a family with a sister who had special needs. I also have a son with special needs. I’m a pediatric nurse who’s cared for children with the same kind of anomalies that the main character was born with. Finally, I taught elementary school for 4 years and high school for 1, and Ms. Palacio nails school dynamics beautifully.

If you haven’t read this wonderful book yet, here is a brief introduction: August Pullman has never been able to attend school due to his extensive medical needs. He was born with severe craniofacial anomalies, and has had many surgeries. At the opening of the story, his parents have decided to enroll him in a private school. Auggie is nervous about how the other kids are going to respond to him. The principal picks three kids that he thinks will help ease the transition for Auggie, but it doesn’t work out so well. (It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to give spoilers!) However, there is another student named Summer who befriends Auggie without prompting from anyone. Through the narrative, the reader becomes a part of the Pullman family as well as their extended family and friends.

  1. The story unfolds through multiple perspectives. Even though Auggie is an extremely observant kid, there is no way he could know the motivations and back story for every other character in the book. Palacio beautifully puts us inside the head of each character, and this is one of the reasons this book has such a huge heart. No one is a cliché, but a fully developed character with motivations guiding their behaviors.
  2. The book is written with humor. Even though I cried in many places, this book is not in the least bit depressing. The Pullman family relies on humor to get them through the tough times. I came to love this family so much. They made mistakes and they didn’t always agree. But they loved each other and it comes across so beautifully in the writing.
  3. The beautiful writing itself makes the book a pleasure to read. In the very beginning of the book, Auggie tells us, “the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.” He is perceptive and notices the way others react to him. He also shares at one point that if he had a magic lamp, he’d wish for an ordinary face. Being inside of Auggie’s head doesn’t feel like a pity party. But the frustration he feels that even his own family doesn’t seem to be able to allow him to be “normal” comes across beautifully. It’s gut wrenching, but at the same time it’s hopeful.
  4. Via’s experiences were the ones that resonated the strongest for me because this teenage character is able to put her family’s existence into words better than I’ve ever been able to. When it’s Via’s turn to tell the story, she compares her family to a solar system. “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun.” Wow.
  5. Another beautiful part of Wonder that was especially meaningful for me was the relationship between Via and her grandmother. In her early years, having her grandmother’s unconditional love and adoration helped to offset the dynamics of her nuclear family. My grandmother was exactly this for me. And just like Via, she died unexpectedly when I needed her support the most. Via’s grandmother shares a secret with her about why she feels the way she does. “I love Auggie very, very much,…but he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you.”
  6. This book is “real” in every since. Palacio doesn’t sugar coat anything. She allows Auggie to be resentful of “normal” kids at times. Via feels betrayed by her mom at times when she focuses so much attention on Auggie and his needs. The parents have arguments. Some kids are just plain mean, because let’s be honest, some kids just are. Perhaps the best part of the authenticity of Wonder is that is shows how acts of kindness that might seem small at the time, can have an enormous impact on someone who needed the kindness. In fact, this book started the Choose Kind movement through American schools.

To say that I recommend this book is an understatement. If you haven’t read it, you can go here for more information from the book’s publisher. If you have read it, please share your comments. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

A Tale of Two Boys: How to Foster Kindness in Kids

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Nothing makes a mom more aware of the kindness, or lack of kindness, shown by children than having a special needs child. During a sermon on Sunday, our pastor spoke of “hashtags” or labels as being things others have applied to us in our past. These could be things like #ugly, #stupid, #lazy, etc. What kind of people apply these hashtags to others? And how much power do we give them in our own lives? How can we encourage our own children to be supportive of others and use language such as #friend, #kindness, #encouragement?

I started thinking about my son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 4. He is now 18, so we have seen many examples of both good hashtags that have helped to motivate him, but unfortunately negative ones that he has carried around with him like a big battered suitcase. This labeling, both good and bad has come from other children, adults such as teachers and pastors, neighbors and even family members. But what struck me while listening to the sermon on Sunday was this: Why do some kids seek out opportunities to give a kid who feels awkward and out of place a boost up and others feel the need to give the kid a swift kick?

It isn’t just taking your child to church or enrolling them in Boy Scouts that is going to make the difference. How do I know this? Because I have experienced it first hand. The two boys I will mention in the blog were both raised in Christian homes, were active in church, and involved in Scouting. They both came from middle to upper middle class families with educated parents. The parents of each boy were active in their communities and seemed to have positive, loving relationships with other family members. But that is where the similarity stops.

Boy #1 was there for my son at a critical point in his life. We had just moved the family to Germany and my son didn’t know anyone there. Boy #1 made a special point to introduce him to his friends, show him around the school, invite him to Scouts and enthusiastically greeted him at the first meeting. Through the kindness of this boy, my son felt welcomed and affirmed. He made friends and adjusted to the new school better than we had dared to dream. The boy continued to be a close friend, always including him in parties and outings until the family moved away.

Fast forward 3 1/2 years later. My son was just starting middle school (ugh!) and we had just moved back to the small town in Georgia that we had lived pre-Germany. Boy #2 seemed at first like a great prospect to help ease the transition here. But rather than show kindness and compassion, he fluctuated between indifference and discouragement. If my son wanted to try out for a school team, Boy #2 had to point out that he didn’t stand a chance at making it. If my son made a statement at a scout meeting, Boy #2 felt the need to put him down for it. The arrogant way in which he disregarded my son was almost more cruel than if he’d called him names.

This young man had an opportunity placed in front of him to make a true difference in the life of another human being, but instead chose to be a detriment to my son’s attempts to make friends and fit in. What, if anything could his parents have done to encourage him to treat my son with kindness and apply a hastag like #Youcandoit!? With all of the blessings Boy #2 had in his life and the talent and popularity he possessed already, why did he feel the need to apply #loser, #friendless, and #notworthmytime?

I think as parents we need to enter into discussions with our kids about kindness. Yes, we need to model it in our own interactions with people but we cannot assume that our children will just absorb that by osmosis. When we visit our child’s classroom we can spot the awkward kid who needs friends from a mile away. Ask your child about him or her and if they ever play with them at recess or sit with them at lunch. Make a point yourself of interacting with that child when you are there. As a former teacher, it is amazing how much it matters when a child has a visitor take an interest in him.

Describe ways that your child could be a friend and what a difference that could make in the life of that person. Some of these kids can be hard to love and act in ways that don’t suggest they want friends. If you observe these behaviors, you as the adult can help your child understand the reasons that could be causing them.

Every single day I crave more kindness in the world. It just seems to be in short supply these days. Let’s help our kids learn kindness at an early age. They will be the better for it in the long run if they can live in a more positive world. Boy #1 is still someone that I cherish. He is now a student at Virginia Tech and I will never forget the positive contribution he made to my son by being his friend and giving him a place in the social strata of school life.

If you have suggestions that have helped your children demonstrate kindness to others, I would love to hear from you.