I looked forward to reviewing “Wonder” because, similar to Auggie, the protagonist of the story, I have a disability that is both immediately evident and impossible to hide.
It is important for me to start off – in case you don’t know – by saying that "Wonder," both as a 2012 book by R. J. Palacio and adapted for film by Stephen Chblosky, presents the fictional story of a young boy living with disability in the form of a congenital facial deformity in a way that is both approachable and not too self-righteous. While seeing someone with a physical disability on the page or on screen will never be a negative experience for me, I still observe that most disability-related fiction for kids has at least one cringe-worthy moment (and, as someone who has a graduate degree in children’s literature, I’ve read a lot of disability fiction for children). In “Wonder,” those moments generally come from the middle school humor you’d find in any children’s work about a child Auggie’s age. The ever-present “Oh, isn’t he brave and resilient?” moments are less offensive because they are expressed by a narrator who understands his disability, but is also aware that able-bodied people see his life much differently than he does.
Because the book/movie focuses on others’ awareness of Auggie, it’s hard for me to recommend it as disability-fiction. At its heart, “Wonder” is not about disability—it’s about bullying, which is why I can recommend it for anyone, not just for children or adults with disabilities and their loved ones.
The premise of “Wonder” is simple enough. A formerly home-schooled child is mainstreamed at 10, an act that is compared to sending a lamb to the slaughter due to his cranial-facial abnormalities. However, at its core, “Wonder” is not Auggie’s story, at least, not entirely. In both the film and the book the narration shifts from Auggie, to his big sister Via, to his friend Jack Will. Companion pieces to the novel even give the audience a chance to see the story through the eyes of Julian, the book’s primary antagonist. This structure combines with plot elements and character realizations to demonstrate the power of perspective. This, in turn, encourages the reader to consider that words and actions can be far more impactful and far-reaching than they imagine.
Again, the focus on others’ perspectives is why I’m hesitant to label “Wonder” as disability fiction. Although it does feature a protagonist with a disability learning how to navigate amongst his able-bodied peers, that is not necessarily the point of the book, nor are the Auggies of the world its target audience. The Auggies of the world know what’s up, and while Auggie’s self-confidence and awareness of others change throughout the novel, by the end of the narrative his overall situation when in public has not changed much. He will always be seen differently by strangers because of his appearance and he will be applauded for getting through life at a level that able-bodied people consider “ordinary.”
What does change for Auggie is the attitude his peers take both toward him and toward the adolescent predisposition toward cruelty that seems to be inherent in children’s fiction and in think-pieces about the increase of online bullying. It is interesting here to note that bullying in “Wonder” usually happens the old-fashioned way, on notes or in hallways, versus social media. By the end of the novel Auggie’s positive attitude has pushed those around him toward kindness. At points, the novel does acknowledge that this should not be Auggie’s job, but he is never freed from the “ball of sunshine” role that disabled characters are so frequently required to fill in order to be liked and accepted.
Obviously, my opinion on this is biased, and others are free to feel differently. I was never bullied as a child, and while my friends possibly talked about me behind my back, I never thought too much about that possibility until I read “Wonder.” It was Auggie’s attachment to his space helmet that made me realize that as a child I cared far less about my appearance than his character does. The cruelty I experienced came with age. Adults seem to mind my differences much more than my peers on the playground. But not every child with a disability may have shared my childhood experience.
While I may not be able to recommend “Wonder” as great disability fiction targeted towards persons with disabilities, for those who encounter people with observable disabilities, the value of the film is clear. From a self-advocacy standpoint, the message of “Wonder” may simply be that we need to keep beating the drum with the able-bodied, and society at large, for acceptance, inclusion, equality, and kindness. “Wonder” provides an excellent reminder of this important message in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.