As a teacher, it’s my professional duty to make sure children can read and, once the mechanics of decoding are in place, to show them why reading matters. There are plenty of arguments to deploy, even for the most reluctant or disinterested of readers. Reading tells you things you didn’t know before. You will know more words and so be able to explain yourself better. You can travel the world and visit distant, unknown planets or stay close to home, all at the turn of the page. It’s fun – join the library, and it’s free. You’d me mad not to.
But, for me, reading matters most because it makes us better people. The grandest and most humane function of reading is to instil empathy in the reader, an understanding of the world from someone else’s point of view. It is in those moments when the written word means reality is seen in new ways, through another’s eyes; when the character becomes as real as the paper you are holding and in some way becomes part of you. This, I think, is what is most remarkable and what is most important about reading. The best writing can change you and make you quietly, subtly better at being who you are.
This is is certainly the case with Wonder by RJ Palacio, a book which tells the story of August Pullman, a boy born with a facial disfigurement, as he starts his first year at middle school. August has a face that is shocking in its deformity, so shocking that it is only partially described in the book and is revealed mostly by people’s reactions; they point, they stare, they whisper, they turn away, they say cruel, cutting words. But on August goes, into the world – gently cajoled by his parents from the cocoon of home.
What elevates Wonder is the narrative shift as the book moves between different perspectives – first telling the story from August’s point of view and then to his sister and on to other children he meets at school. Each section cleverly moves the reader to a new place, revealing previously unseen and unspoken thoughts – like moving round a sculpture, and observing it from each side, from above and below. Just when you think you’ve understood, when you feel you are seeing things from a fixed point, it shifts, reveals itself anew and makes you think again.
There were passages in the book that felt long and it builds to a Disney-style ending but this doesn’t detract from what is an important, memorable book, one that should be thrust into young (and old) hands and read and talked about. You don’t need to look too far in this world to see where there is a deficit of understanding, where we fail to think how others may feel, and try to sense what life is truly like for them.
The world would be a better place if more people read, and the world would be an even better place if more people took the time to read Wonder.