How “Wonder” Breaks the Rules So Good
Note: This article was first published March 26, 2018, on my Tea & Scandal blog.
When I saw Wonder at the cinemas, I started crying as soon as the mother dropped Auggie off for his first day of school. From that point on, the tears came about every 10 minutes. Before I could leave the darkness of the theater, I had to rub my face and suck it up as best I could. I walked out with my son, wobbly legged and in awe.
And I thought, This is what the world needs right now. An Auggie.
The book Wonder (Knopf, 2012), on which the movie is based, introduces us to August “Auggie” Pullman, a homeschooler who is beginning fifth grade at a New York city prep school. Auggie was born with a severe cranial deformity, for which he has numerous surgeries, giving him an “extraordinary face.”
But the story isn’t all about Auggie. We also see the situation from the perspectives of the young people Auggie impacts: his sister Via, his classmate Jack Will, and so on. Throughout the book, we see how Auggie’s presence causes the people around him to either be more kind...or more cruel.
Since seeing Wonder at the cinemas with my eight-year-old, I told my other two sons that this was either required reading or required watching. Since we had an early spring snow day last week, we chose to watch the film together.
My 11-year-old, who is more sensitive than he’d like to admit, complained beforehand, “This subject makes me uncomfortable.” He didn’t want to participate.
I told him, ”Some of this will be hard to watch and it will hurt. But, in the end, it is so worth it.” And afterwards, he agreed, his hands held up in a gesture that said, “And the kick is good!”
One thing I noticed in this story is how author R. J. Palacio allows her characters to break some rules. And yet she doesn’t try to justify it with words or force terrible consequences on the offenders.
It makes me wonder....
It makes me wonder if sometimes it’s okay to break the rules when you have a good reason for doing so. Maybe Auggie’s situation requires some bending of the rules. I don’t know for sure, but I admit, I find myself cheering for the rule-breakers.
Here follow three beautifully broken rules in Wonder:
1. Never Cheat
Cheating is the very worst rule to break in school. We learn this young. You do not, under any circumstances, cheat. It gets you an automatic zero, detention, expulsion, ________________ [fill in the blank]. When I was in college, working under a cherished and time-honored Honor Code, cheating was the foremost dishonorable wrongdoing.
When Auggie, who is somewhat of a prodigy, sees fellow student Jack Will struggling in science class, he let’s him steal the answers off his quiz. Appalling, right? Well....
Yes, cheating is wrong; but in this case, cheating rewards Auggie with a best friend.
I cannot say Auggie is right to do this. But I can argue that his quiz answers are the only things he has to give. In his new school, where he has trouble making friends—or even breaking the ice—this giving is essential.
In Auggie’s mind, he has nothing to lose. I think if the boys had been caught, the teacher or principal would have dealt consequences, but Auggie and Jack would have stayed friends.
2. Never Play Favorites
As a parent of three boys, I would never tell one that he is the favorite. First, because I honestly can’t pick a favorite, and second, because they are all three my favorite for different reasons.
And yet, in Wonder, the grandmother, who is since deceased, told Auggie’s sister Via that she loved her more than anything in the world. “You are my favorite,” she said.
Via even argued with her. “What about Auggie?” But the grandmother held her ground. Because she knew that her granddaughter needed someone to love her the most. Auggie requires so much attention in the Pullman family that Via often suffers and sacrifices.
Auggie has special needs, but Via needs special favor that her parents can’t provide. That favor comes from the grandmother who played favorites.
This was one of the most touching scenes to me, as I have (and had) a special bond with both my grandmothers. Neither has ever said, “You are my favorite.” But when I am with my grandmother, I perceive a healthy favoritism in the moment.
I hope my three children experience that feeling with me. I hope they each think I’m her favorite. Because they are. 😉
3. Never Hit
Schools like to say they have no tolerance for bullying or hitting. But what about when a kid hits the bully?
Julian is the lead antagonist in Wonder. Like Auggie’s mother says, he’s one of those kids who acts one way with adults and another way with kids. We later see that his parents behave selfishly, and we can assume that their son is a product of his upbringing.
When Julian takes his harassment of Auggie too far, Jack Will punches him. This doesn’t in itself end the bullying, but it means the world to Auggie and sets a precedent for how other students treat him. Even the school principal sees it as Jack standing up for a friend.
Later in the story, several of Auggie’s classmates, including Jack, stand up to Auggie’s bullies, even physically fighting for him. Coming together in this way, fighting against meanness, unites Auggie and the other boys.
“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
Read Wonder, Watch Wonder
We bibliophiles tend to disparage the film adaptations of books. Since I hadn’t read the book, the movie was my first exposure to the story. And as I’ve said, I was profoundly touched. My middle-school friend Alyssa told me that the film stayed true to the book, which is, I think, the best we can hope for.
Not all people read books. I am learning this painful truth while trying to make a career of writing books—books that I hope people will read. But for this reason, I appreciate films based on books.
I have been very pleased to see some of my favorite books emerge on the screen: Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter, Les Miserables. (I can’t wait to see A Wrinkle in Time. Anyone else?) I have been disappointed too: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Odd Thomas.
That said, please—please—choose a way to experience Wonder, either the book or the movie. Maybe both. I have bought the book so I can relate to my middle-school friends, but also because this is a book I want in my house. I hope to see one of my boys pick it off the shelf one day and sit in the swinging chair with Auggie.
Wonder about Wonder
After reading or seeing Wonder, think about it. Talk about it. Live about it.
Kids are marching for their lives right now. How scary is that? That our kids fear for their lives.... That they don’t feel protected in their schools.... Why is that?
I think it’s because we are raising children to lack empathy. We award talent and competition and intelligence. And whoever can pick on another first is the winner.
But we don’t necessarily have rewards for children who are thoughtful and kind. For the kids who are good friends. What about a prize for the student who steps between the bully and the bullied?
I don’t have a child with special needs or disfigurements, but when I send my boys to school, I feel I can relate to Auggie’s mother in a small way, which is why she made me cry. I worry for them, for what they will hear, for what they will hold in, for what they will endure.
And we, unmindful and lacking insight, tell our children to tough it out.
Wonder is a good teacher—to adults as well as kids. It teaches us to stand up for the Auggies and knock down the Julians. It teaches us to give a standing ovation to the little heroes who hold open doors and smile at strangers and sit with the losers at lunch.
It teaches us to wear the face of Auggie and be open about our brokenness. And in showing our real faces, we really see the faces of others, their hurts and struggles. And we have grace because we understand that they are fighting their own battles.
I want to see this book change our communities and schools and homes. Let’s be better people, like the characters in Auggie’s story who rise up to do the right thing. Like the book’s slogan, let’s choose kind.
“We carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness.”
Looking for another family-friendly movie like Wonder? Allow me to recommend The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman. It’s not based on a book, but I love me a musical! This one’s got fun music and an important message about family, acceptance, being different, and living your dreams. ❤️