I recently finished reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio aloud to my daughter, which might seem like a surprising choice to some since the book is, arguably, inspiration porn that perpetuates the idea that the people who look significantly different deserve accolades for simply existing and anyone who befriends such a person is a hero.
Frankly, that’s exactly why I chose to read it with her rather than let her find it on her own, which she likely would, considering how popular the book has become. This way we could take the story slowly to parse out what I see as the problematic elements of the story as we read. I have complicated feelings about this book as I expect that many other people in my position—people who are used to being stared at because they have a significantly different body—share. It isn’t easy to read about Auggie’s award for “bravery” at the end of the book when readers are well aware that he has done nothing to deserve it. It really isn’t easy to watch Auggie accept the eventual popularity he gets at school, which is more condescending than it is kind. As I found reading with my daughter, these aren’t easy things to talk about either.
But in my world, it’s necessary to talk about them. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been given inordinate accolades or given apparent hero status for simply existing. Or how often my long-term partner has been seen as saintly for being with me. So when I read Wonder the first time, I read a book that portrayed ableism, especially internalized ableism, in a way that was painfully affecting and emotional. I admit, I thought it was obvious to readers that August should not have been given the award and that the mascot-like relationship he has with his peers at the end of the book was not healthy friendship. When I finished the book that first time, long before it was published, I was optimistic about the way that this book could share parts of my experience in a way that I hadn’t been able to communicate before.
Unfortunately, the book couldn’t seem to communicate it either. Or perhaps the message that I thought was there never really was. Even on re-reading it now, I’m not really sure. I still found it difficult to read at times in how realistic some of it was. The character of Miranda, in particular, felt real to me in the worst way. I have known people who feel like they deserve some sort of “credit” for befriending people who are different. I have known many, many people who feel that protecting people, the way that Miranda seeks to protect August, is love/kindness/friendship. I truly hope that no one finishes that book thinking that that’s what friendship is. That that’s what August wants from the people in his life. But I’m worried that that’s exactly what people have been getting from this book.
I love that the book has inspired so many people to Choose Kind. I only wonder if people are confusing being inspired by someone for being kind to them when the two actually have very little to do with each other. I love that the book created a place for my daughter and I to talk about healthy friendships, bravery, and other important but not often discussed topics.
I may not like the truths that this book captured about the way we treat people who are different, but that doesn’t make them any less true. I don’t know that my thoughts about this book or about disability/ableism are fully formed or off base. Here is what I do know: one insensitive thought or action does not define you. Via isn’t a bad person for what she thinks about August. Jack isn’t evil for what he says about August. You aren’t a bad person for double-taking or staring at someone like August (or at me). You aren’t a bad person for being curious or expressing curiosity—even if you express it kind of rudely. That moment isn’t all there is. There is always more to the story. Kindness is being open to the stories you haven’t heard yet.
Choose kind, but know that sympathy isn’t kindness. Pity isn’t kindness. Special treatment isn’t kindness. Know that this book is mostly showing what not to do when it comes to kindness. For me, the book gets at a deeper truth than simply “choose kind.” It shows how the kind choice isn’t always obvious. And sometimes our instincts about kindness are wrong.
To close, here is Stella Young talking about inspiration porn: