We held our first Nosy Crow Guardian children’s book reading group for adults in our offices last night, and the first book up for discussion was Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, the winner of the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize for the 5-12 year-old category.
Wonder has been regularly compared to Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (as Suzy Feay writes in The Independent, “I imagine that the pitch for Wonder went something along the lines of “does for facial disfigurement what The Curious Incident… did for Asperger’s”). It’s had excellent reviews. Cory Doctorow wrote, “Palacio is a wonderful storyteller and her characters are bright, well-rounded and intensely likeable. Wonder is a beautiful book that is full of sorrow and triumph, emotional without being manipulative,” and the book received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.
There were twenty-odd of us, including Nosy Crow people and Michelle Pauli from The Guardian, so we split into two groups, as we thought that would give everyone a chance to speak. We discussed the book for an hour in our groups (and Michelle Pauli did a great job of transmitting the discussion in her group as it was happening onto The Guardian’s online page for the event), before reuniting with a glass of wine to talk through the main points our groups had raised (the picture at the top of this blog post).
I was focused on coordinating discussion in my group: I failed monumentally to do any Tweeting, and I didn’t make any entries on The Guardian’s page. But here’s a taste of what my group thought, and of part of the full-group discussion afterwards.
PLOT SPOILER ALERT
The first thing to say is that this blog post contains plot-spoilers, so look away now if that bothers you!
A GREAT BOOK
The second thing to say is that we all enjoyed the book, which many of us had read a second time for the group. Many said they “loved” the book, and spoke of their emotional response to it, saying that they’d cried at various points: the dog dying and the prize-giving were common triggers. Many of us felt that there was much to be said for aiming a book at children that celebrates kindness and the triumph of the better aspects of humanity. One reader, a teacher, liked the way that it showed that children can, and do, mess up, but that mistakes can be remedied. Readers thought Auggie was well-realised (I, for one, think that the first 80 pages is an example of terrific writing). As Kirsty said as the Nosy Crows were washing up afterwards, if it had come in as a manuscript to Nosy Crow, there’s no question that we would have swung into action immediately to try to buy it.
So, broadly, this was a book that we really liked and would encourage others, adults and children, to read.
Our discussion and our criticisms of the book focused, essentially, on two things.
First, many of us felt that the book was too sentimental. Several of us pin-pointed the prize-giving scene as particularly problematic, and was described as “too easy”, “too perfect”, “soppy” and “phoney”. This had already come up in Twitter discussions about the book before the meeting, where author Sally Nicholls (who, in Ways To Live For Ever, has herself tackled the challenge of describing a child dying of cancer) had voiced doubts about the prize-giving, saying it was patronising to anyone with any kind of disability or disfigurement, and comparing it to the attitudes parodied in this Laurence Clark video. In mitigation, Auggie himself says:
“I wasn’t even sure why I was getting this medal, really.
No, that’s not true. I knew why.
It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. Only, I know that I’m that person to other people, maybe to every single person in that whole auditorium.
To me, though, I’m just me. An ordinary kid.
But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that’s OK. I’ll take it. I didn’t destroy a Death Star or anything…”
Many of us said that we felt that the attitudes of the children to Auggie were simply unrealistic: they just weren’t mean enough. This was, we felt, particularly true of Summer. We all agreed that the most painful moment of the book was Jack’s betrayal of Auggie, and several of us commented that this felt very real. Others commented that the “Plague” was a great way to convey the other children’s initial refusal to accept Auggie.
In the context of the question of sentimentality, we spoke about changing attitudes to disability (or disfigurement). In many 19th Century children’s books disability was the “responsibility” of the person who was disabled (often caused by a moral misjudgment) who was also, often with the encouragement of another child, “redeemed” morally and physically. But in Wonder, the “responsibility” belongs to the other characters, and their morality is revealed by their attitude to the disabled (or disfigured) character. I wrote about sight- and hearing-impaired characters in children’s books in this blog post last summer, and one of us brought along this exploration of the subject.
We asked ourselves if we had different standards, where didacticism and sentimentality (and we saw these as linked in this book – the happy outcome was essential to the moral lesson) were concerned in adult books as opposed to children’s books. We felt we did. We broadly agreed that didacticism and sentimentality were more acceptable in children’s books than in adult books. This is interesting, given that this book is being spoken of as a “cross-over” book. I’ve written about the particular moral responsibilities of children’s book publishers in this blog post. Some of us – particularly those of us who work with children – said that the book was a useful “tool for discussion” with children, and one of us emphasised the degree to which Auggie’s disfigurement could be read as a metaphor for any kind of “outsiderness”.
We also asked ourselves how far our view of the book as “sentimental” was culturally determined: was there something British about our reaction: some of us said we’d cried at certain points in the story but felt embarrassed or rather ashamed of ourselves for this response, for example. Luckily, there was an American in our group, so we had another perspective to draw on. She, like us, did feel that the sentiment of the book was particularly American, that it was more acceptable to express emotion openly in American culture than it was to do so in the United Kingdom, and that this attitude shapes writing.
The second aspect of the book that many of us criticised was the structure. Some of us liked the multiple narrative voices (though several of us admitted to being sorry to “lose” Auggie’s voice when the narrative first transitioned to Via). But we all felt that some voices were more successful than others. Many of us thought that the story would have been better told without Summer (who we felt was “too saintly” anyway), Justin and Miranda, and thought that the plot points that they delivered (it’s Summer who hints to Jack why Auggie is angry with him) could have been delivered differently. That leaves Auggie, Via and Jack. I do think that the structure of the novel (and I sketched the rough diagram below), in which the narrative is taken forward by one voice, before the next voice backtracks to a previous point in the story, is a challenging one, and it’s a real tribute to R J Palacio that she managed to maintain the pace of this story through this “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” storytelling.
Discussion of the split narrative led to discussions about individual characters’ narrative arcs or journeys. We agreed that Auggie’s emotional journey was simple: he overcame his anxieties and embraced the world. Some of us felt that he was rather passive: a character to whom things happened, rather than an agent himself (and perhaps this ties in to the question of attitudes to disability, above). I sketched a rough Auggie-ometer (below), using Auggie’s own numerical system to convey his level of happiness, and, for a lot of the book, it does seem to hover around 5. The character many of us were really interested in was Jack, and one of us, at least, felt that there was much more to get out of his story. Some of us questioned that central position of the play in Via’s story, and wanted to hear more about her conflicting emotions about being the sibling of someone who absorbed and drew so much attention.
Some of us felt that the book started better than it ended, and several of us commented on how precipitate and perfect the ending was as the denouement unfolded rapidly following the climactic attack that Auggie suffers when the school is away (and we spoke about whether it was a “cheat” to take the action out of the school to create this climax). Auggie is accepted, he wins his prize, his nemesis (Julian) leaves the school… and the family gets a replacement dog. All within the space of forty pages.
We were split on the success of the central section of the novel, where the voices fall away, and we have, in the Christmas/New Year school holiday, an exchange of emails and texts and Facebook messages. Some of us felt that it was a problem that these weren’t “owned” by a voice, and didn’t like the lack of clarity as to who knew the contents of the emails. Which of the narrators, if any, for example, have access to Julian’s mother’s email?
Finally, we were also split on whether the author takes too long – a good 80 pages – to tell us what Auggie looks like. Some of us felt that it was fine to go with Auggie’s “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse”, while some of us wanted the description that we finally get earlier.
What do you think of Wonder, and of the points we raised? You can tell us here or on Twitter (@nosycrow, with hashtag #NCGKids), but it would be even better if you would contribute to the comments here
Next month’s book is A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. We’ll write more about it shortly.
This first reading group was, I am sorry to say, massively oversubscribed, but if you would like to join us, or, as it may turn out, join the waiting list for July 11 and beyond (we’re holding this on the second Thursday of every month), then please email [email protected]
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