Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reading: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Always be kinder than necessary.  -J.M. Barrie 

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Ten year old August Pullman is like any other ten-year-old; he likes eating ice-cream, and he has a dog named Daisy.  He has an older sister, and he is obsessed with Star Wars and playing his X-box.  He loves music, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate milk.  But he also makes people stop, stare, and gasp.  Born with a rare craniofacial deformity, August has endured many surgeries and was unable to attend school.  When fifth grade begins, his parents suggest enrolling him in Beecher Prep Academy.  At BCA, August befriends a boy named Jack Will and a sweet girl named Summer.  Life in fifth grade isn't always easy for him, as he has to endure bullying from Julian, the most "popular" boy in the fifth grade.  When he takes an overnight camping trip with his fifth grade class and ventures into the woods with Jack for a short bathroom break, he and Jack encounter a group of seventh grade bullies and are rescued by Amos and Miles, making August feel like an emperor surrounded by guards.  In a world where test-scores are often emphasized in public schools to teachers and students alike, and where books that offer sheer entertainment while capitalizing on stereotypes often dominate, it is refreshing to read a book that inspires readers to do something: Be kind.  

As I read Wonder, I experienced a wide range of emotions.  I felt hopeful for August when he began school and made a new friend in Jack Will and Summer.  I felt anxious for him as he sat alone in the cafeteria, wondering who would sit with him at lunch, and as he waited for the empty seats surrounding him in homeroom to fill.  These scenarios are stressful enough for the average fifth grader, and with people pointing and whispering, August demonstrated the utmost courage.  When August comes to school as the "Bloody Scream" on Halloween and hears Jack Will speaking unkindly about him, he rushes to the bathroom in tears and stays there until he can go to the nurse's office and call home.   August says this made his heart sank to his sandals, and it caused my heart to sink to my feet.  I felt betrayed by Jack Will, just as August did.  When Summer felt uncomfortable at Savannah's birthday party with Julian in attendance and called her mother to pick her up, I admired her for doing what was right.  When the other boys in fifth grade decided to ignore Julian and stick up for August, I felt victorious!  And when August went on stage during fifth grade graduation to accept the prestigious Henry Ward Beecher medal for courage, I truly began to cry and could imagine the excitement his family must have felt. 

Wonder encourages readers to "choose kind."
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Readers of Wonder will certainly feel this same range of emotions and reflect on how they demonstrate kindness to others and what they can do to create more kindness in this world. I know that I certainly thought about ways in which I share kindness in my own life and what I can do to be "kinder than necessary."  It also causes me to reflect on how I discuss kindness in my own classroom.  Before I became a teacher, I knew that I wanted to emphasize kindness and character-building in my curriculum.  While I know that these skills can be easily embedded into the curriculum, especially with interactive read-alouds, I feel that I have not emphasized them as much as I would like to, nor have the districts in which I have worked particularly emphasized them either with a push for academically-based activities at all times of the day.  Wonder illustrates how some children do need character education, as they do not receive this at home.  For example, Julian's reaction towards August was certainly influenced by his parents, who believed that August should not attend Beecher Prep because it was not an inclusion school.  On the other hand, Jack Will's mother encouraged him to befriend August, and Jack Will did!  And even though he spoke negatively about August on that fateful Halloween, we later learn that he wasn't being himself and truly missed August's friendship.  I would love to share this story with my third graders for the direct lessons that it teaches about kindness (though there are certain sentences here or there I would need to omit, as they are more "middle-school" and I don't want anybody to get mad at me).  August is a relatable boy to all of them; he just looks different.  I believe that Wonder would inspire them all to share kindness with one another and with the people in their school and community.  After reading it, we could brainstorm ways to share that kindness, and each child could choose a specific task in which to engage.  From my observations, children love being kind but may not always know how.  Like August points out, they don't always know when they're being mean or hurting somebody's feelings.  It is important to teach them these things, and a book like Wonder does an exemplary job of teaching kindness without being "preachy."  

Along with kindness, another common theme that I saw embedded throughout Wonder is that of starting over.  Even at the end of the book, Julian's precept is that, "Sometimes, it is good to start over."  Perhaps this is hinting to the fact that he wants to start over with August and not be a bully to him?  Perhaps it just means that he recognizes that starting a new boarding school will be good for him, as he has harmed his reputation by being cruel to August and Jack.   August and Jack rebuild their friendship in the midst of the book.  Olivia and Miranda restart their friendship after going through misunderstandings.  After the death of beloved dog Daisy, the Pullman family adopts a new puppy they call Bear.  I feel that this a call to readers that it is never too late to be kind.  If a wedge has been driven between a friendship, or if unkindness has been shown to another person, there is always time to turn around, fix it, and be kind.  

While I enjoyed reading Wonder and feel that it teaches a timeless lesson, I couldn't help but notice the way "good looks" are still discussed in the book.  I mean, I understand that the book wouldn't have been written if there wasn't such a focus on appearance in our society.  The reason August is bullied is because of his appearance.   However, there are times throughout the book when Jack Will calls Olivia and Summer "hot," a term used by most middle-schoolers, I'm sure.  And then there's an emphasis on August's handsome father and beautiful mother, and Miranda and Olivia both recount which of their friends is the prettiest.  I feel that Wonder is showing how appearance shouldn't matter; in the end of the book, nobody seemed to care what August looked like and had the same attitude towards him as his dog, Daisy.  Yet, even at the end of the book, being "hot" is deemed as a good thing.  I know that that's how it is in reality, but I feel like those small snippets could have been omitted to help emphasize the message that it doesn't matter what a person looks like because he/she could be really cool no matter what!  

Interestingly, author R.J. Palacio was inspired to write Wonder after an incident at an ice-cream shop with her young sons that was identical to the incident that occurred between Jack Will with his baby-sitter and young August.  Inspiration is all around, and Palacio chose to take a moment in which she was unhappy with her decision and turn it around by transforming it into a best-selling book about kindness.  I think she would agree that it is never too late to start over. For more information about Palacio, the book, or teaching resources, check out R.J. Palacio's website! 

1 comment:

  1. I loved the way that you thought about it as starting over. It's hard to start over in anything, and it is refreshing to think of all of the characters starting over in their own way.