This book has become a cult classic among middle grade readers and adults alike. Once I met August, it was easy to see why. The story was born one afternoon when the author was in an ice cream shop with her children and they saw a child with a facial deformity. The author’s youngest child asked an awkward question and, thinking to spare the other child’s feelings, she rushed herself and her children out of the ice cream shop. Later, she repented deeply as she thought of how the sight of her and her children fleeing must have made the other child (and her parent) feel.
August is that child on the page. He’s going into fifth grade and has been homeschooled due to numerous surgeries, a feeding tube, and general health issues. All those surgeries later, there’s no feeding tube, but his facial deformity is such that he tells us he won’t describe his face because whatever we imagine, it’s probably worse. It’s up to the other characters to give us an image of August’s outside while the various perspectives give us a picture of his inside. The intervening event that kicks off the novel is his parents’ decision to enter him in a mainstream prep school. Middle school is horrifying as a “regular” kid, much less a kid with a severe facial deformity. August has all kinds of support from his parents, his principal, and a team of kids the principal hand picks to mentor him, but the kids who are genuine and those who are nice for appearances become clear (as does the parental root of their values in a particularly awful scene where one mom photoshops August out of the class picture and circulates it to other interested parents).
August is not perfect. He cries, he rages, he pities himself, he sticks to a world of Auggie’s problems while his older sister struggles to maintain her self esteem as a freshman in high school and the sister of the kid with the weird face whose parents have devoted their lives to making things as right as possible for him since his birth. Via’s chapters are among my favorites. Her grandmother sees her in a way her parents cannot and my heart broke when Via tells about her grandmother’s death. Via is a self-motivated, highly organized young woman because she has to be. She doesn’t whine about it, however. She just tells it like it is and she admits that starting a new school where not everyone knows about her brother has been a refreshing change that, despite her guilt, she is not ready to give up, to the point of keeping from her family a role in the school play.
Auggie is bullied, but the inner strength his parents have instilled and supported in him keeps him going and allows him to be an agent for change for those around him.
My middle-grade reader did not like this book. It was predictable, he said. Isn’t part of the joy the journey, to see how August gets from point A to point B and what happens along the way? He was not sold, but I was.
Palacio’s impetus for writing the novel hit home with me and probably many others who have acted similarly, wanting to do the right thing as well as the comfortable thing (for us) without making ourselves really consider how it feels to be the “monster” from whom everyone flees. August is a wonder for changing my perspective, for forcing me to face my own discomfort and fears. I’m ready for the awkward question. God creates many wonders, each one unique. Isn’t that a wonder?