‘Wonder’ by R. J. Palacio

Last week I saw a trailer for the new film adaptation of R. J. Palacio’s best-selling young adult novel, Wonder (Penguin Random House: 2012). The film stars Jacob Tremblay as August Pullman, and Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as his parents, and looks pretty sure to bring out a few cheers and tears from viewers.

While we have to wait for November to see the film, the trailer’s release reminded me that I’ve had the novel sitting on my to-read list for the last year– and what are rainy Bank Holiday afternoons for, anyway? Even my mother has ordered the book for her school library in Australia, having had the issue of facial difference raised on her radar through my involvement with Effaced (impact!). Changing Faces provide their own free guide to teaching the novel to children among their education resources.

The novel’s overarching moral is clear: August (Auggie) is ‘different’, but so is every other person in the book and, by extension, the world. Every character is made up of multiple points of identity, some of which have been stigmatised to varying extents in recent history. There is religious and racial diversity, divorced parents, wealth inequality, and the classic schoolyard nerds vs. jocks. Auggie addresses this in identifying that “Everyone’s known for something in middle school” and that this is generally “what you’re into”. In his case, he recognises that he is “known for” his facial difference, and makes conscious efforts to negotiate this throughout the novel. But he also manages additional facets of identity that he has more control over: he recognises that his obsession with Star Wars is uncool, and so tries to pass for a more casual fan by, at one particular narrative moment, replacing his Star Wars sleeping bag with a plain one.

Auggie’s negotiation of stigma is accompanied by the issue of what Erving Goffman called ‘courtesy stigma’ attaching to his family and friends, some of which is enacted through the shifting of narrative points of view. An early conflict with his friend Jack occurs when Auggie overhears him talking to some other boys about him, saying that he only hangs out with Auggie because the teachers have told him to, and that he shares the disgust of the dominant group, as a way of deliberately distancing himself. Auggie’s sister, Via, starts a new school and initially hides knowledge of Auggie from her new peers. When Amos, Miles, Henry and Jack band together with Auggie against some older bullies from another school, it is in the face of a taunt from the boys that “They’re all a bunch of freaks.” The ‘catching’ nature of stigma is also given a literal form in the book through the children’s myth that anyone who touches Auggie catches ‘the Plague’, and resolution in his awareness at the close of the book, as everyone huddles in to get a photo with him and his award, that “All I know for sure is that we were all laughing and squeezing in tight against each other, and no one seemed to care if it was my face that was next to theirs or not. In fact, and I don’t mean to brag here, but it kind of felt like everyone wanted to get close to me.”

The novel also refers repeatedly to the issue of staring, evoking many of the different types of staring discussed by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in Staring (2009). While very young children engage in full, open ‘baroque stares’, those old enough to know that it is impolite are “nudging each other, watching [him] out of the corners of their eyes”. Adults, meanwhile, who exert greater control over their desire to stare, nevertheless betray their awareness and shock at Auggie’s appearance. Auggie is introduced to the middle school director’s assistant, Mrs Garcia, and “Then that thing happened that I’ve seen happen a million times before. When I looked up at her, Mrs. Garcia’s eyes dropped for a second. It was so fast no one else would have noticed, since the rest of her face stayed exactly the same. She was smiling a really shiny smile.”

Another recurring feature in the novel is the use of pop culture references by children and adult characters. Often, these are used to describe Auggie’s appearance to others and himself: he is likened to a Lord of the Rings Orc and Gollum, to the eponymous Alien, to Freddy Kreuger, Star Wars‘ Darth Sith, and so on. These references highlight fiction’s classic associations of ugliness with moral depravity or monstrosity– something Changing Faces are directly challenging in their awareness campaigns for Face Equality in film and television.

The novel has in turn provided a cultural touch-point for facial difference groups in America. Most directly, the Children’s Craniofacial Association produced a video called I am Auggie Pullman, which uses the cultural reference to introduce ‘real-life Auggies’:

I won’t spoil the ending, but I confess to finding the end of the novel a little trite/what Stella Young memorably termed ‘inspiration porn‘ (her TED Talk in the link is highly recommended), but at least it was addressed fairly directly in the novel itself in Auggie’s reflection at the end of the chapter ‘Floating’. I’m also curious to see whether the casting of the film reflects the racial diversity of the novel, and whether it will meet with the debate about actors ‘cripping up‘ that has become more prominent in recent years. Stay tuned for further discussion…

 

Emily Cock

 

 

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