Book Review: The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R.J. Palacio
Title: The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story*
Author: R.J. Palacio
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Genre: Children’s Fiction
When I finished Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I didn’t love it, but I did like it. I thought the characters were surprisingly complex for a children’s book and that the character development was well handled. Wonder had a good sense of timing and humor, and Palacio dealt with some very touchy subjects well. The only real exception to this was Julian, the antagonist.
Julian was cruel to August in the book and Palacio made a point of showing his mother as an enabler. Unfortunately, Julian is rather flat as a character, even in his own novelette.
I thought Palacio did a great job of showing complex family dynamics in Wonder, but it didn’t transfer over to The Julian Chapter. Julian’s family is your archtypical Upper East-siders. His mother is a hovering busy-body who thinks that her child’s every cry is a mandate for fulfillment. His father is stern, but distant. He even has a grandmother in France.
Julian’s story begins by explaining that from a very young age Julian has been terrified of zombies and other creatures with malformed faces. He’s had to see a therapist and has only recently recovered from it when August comes to school. Julian is instantly thrown backwards into nightmares.
I know that Palacio is doing this to make Julian’s fear more sympathetic. It didn’t come across very successfully. It was drawn in such a manner as to make Julian come across as a brat rather than a kid who has been haunted by nightmares. Part of this is because of the lack of actual struggle we see and part of it is because of the way Julian’s voice is written.
For most of the other characters in the Wonder universe, the characters go in depth about their worries and emotions. Julian’s story doesn’t get this. We are told that he’s sent to see a “feelings” doctor and that he often had to be taken home at night when he saw scary movies. We don’t hear how he actually felt during those times. We aren’t told how the panic felt or what the embarrassment must have been like. We aren’t told how relieved he felt when the nightmares finally went away or how he eventually came to embrace horror films. Though it is a children’s story, and we should expect some simplification, it lacks the empathy of Palacio’s other narratives.
Palacio compounds the problem by making Julian blow it all off when he’s talking about it. There’s none of the candidness that makes the other narratives resonate.
Julian’s story doesn’t give much credence to his mother’s influence on his behavior. Multiple times throughout the story, we’re told that his mother tries to alter the world around her to be how she wants to remember it (She even alters the skies in their vacation photos so that she’ll remember them blue). This should have some serious effect on a kid. Palacio doesn’t show how this has rubbed off on Julian, potentially contributing to his anxieties, or how it continues to change his behavior, rejecting the undesirable.
The rest of his family, with the exception of his grandmother, who has a very interesting and detailed backstory, really doesn’t seem to interact with any of Julian’s growth or current existence. Though his father shows promise, that falls through, and he has a weird role reversal with Julian’s mother in the last few pages that made no sense.
Overall, there were some good points. Namely, the time Julian spent with his grandmother was well done. The rest left something to be desired.
* The copy reviewed was obtained courtosey of Random House Kids and Netgalley.com