The moment that led to the bestselling children’s novel Wonder — with its message about the power of kindness that is now at the center of a new movie — is one that author R.J. Palacio wishes she could take back.
A decade ago, “I was in front of an ice cream store with my two sons and my younger son, who was only 3 at the time, saw a little girl that had a very significant craniofacial difference,” says Palacio, 54. “He got a little scared and he started to cry.”
“In my haste to kind of shield her from seeing his response or his reaction to her face, I kind of whisked him away really quickly. Afterwards, I started really thinking … what I should have done, of course, is just turn to the little girl and maybe started up a conversation and shown by example that it was really nothing to be afraid of. That just got me thinking about what it must be like to face a world every day that doesn’t quite know how to face you back.”
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A New York city graphic artist who has designed book jackets for authors including Salman Rushie, Sue Grafton and Thomas Pynchon, Palacio had never written a book herself. She started Wonder that night. The book tells the story of Auggie Pullman, a boy with facial differences caused by a rare genetic condition who enters middle school after years of homeschooling. As he makes friends, faces bullying and makes it through the gauntlet of fifth grade, Palacio shifts narrators to show the perspectives of Auggie, his classmates, his older sister and other characters, offering a sympathetic look at the inner worlds of tweens and teens alike.
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“A lot of the sub-stories were somewhat drawn from life,” says Palacio (a pen name for Raquel Jaramillo), whose son Caleb is now 21 and son Joseph is now 13. Before Wonder was published, she let Caleb, then a 9th-grader, read it. “I was a little nervous about his reaction. He said, ‘Mom, this is really great. This should be required reading in every middle school. But couldn’t you have done a better job of changing some of those stories in there?'”
Published in 2012, it has sold more than eight million copies worldwide — and indeed become required reading in many middle schools along with a favorite among parents and tweens. “I read it myself, then came home and read it out loud to my kids as our bedtime book,” says Julia Roberts, who plays Auggie’s mom in the new movie version, which stars Jacob Tremblay as Auggie. (Palacio says she was “so nervous” to meet Roberts on set. “I’ve been such a Julia Roberts fan for so long! And then you realize, ‘Oh, she’s just a person.’ An amazing person. She’s so funny, and she’s so smart, and she’s so best friend material.”)
The secret to Wonder‘s broad appeal is simple. “It’s a very optimistic book,” says Palacio, who often speaks at middle schools in an effort to spread the book’s motto, “Choose Kind.” “Especially now, people want to be reminded that there is an inherent goodness in people.”
Palacio also has a challenge to parents and kids: “It’s not true that middle school has to be this horrible rite of passage. It really doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve just come to expect it.”
“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with parents,” she says. “They’ll say: ‘Well, you know, she’s in middle school now. What am I going to do? She doesn’t listen to me anymore, she’s going through a mean phase, but, you know, I guess all kids go through that.’ I don’t buy into that. I think that in middle school, kids ae still listening to what parents tell them. They might be pretending like they’re not listening. They might be looking down at their smartphones, and they might be, like, just a little too cool for school to sort of really, you know, actively listen, but they’re still hearing us. I think parents still need to make it known that they have certain expectations. We can’t expect perfect behavior from our kids, but we can expect them at the very least to show each other kindness and a little bit of respect.”