Wonder Author R. J. Palacio Joins Us
Every now and then a book comes along that makes us say “this is amazing, can it possibly be as good as I think it is?” In the case of WONDER by R. J. Palacio the answer is YES. After hearing Editor Erin Clarke talk about this book I was so intrigued that I read it the next day. It was nearly a one sitting book–I had to pause to take out my contact lenses that were so salty with tears that I couldn’t continue reading–happy tears of course.
Today we welcome R. J. Palacio to our blog to share her thoughts about WONDER, Auggie Pullman and writing.
How did the idea for WONDER come about?
About five years ago I took my kids to visit a friend of mine who lives out of town, and at some point during the day we found ourselves sitting next to a little girl who looked the way Auggie looks in the book. We were in front of an ice cream shop, and she was sitting next to us with her mother and a friend. My younger son was only about three at the time, and he reacted exactly the way you might think a three-year old would react when seeing something that scared him: he started to cry—pretty loudly, too. And though my older son, who was ten at the time, knew better than to stare, his expression said it all despite his best efforts: he looked like someone had just punched him. It was terrible, on all counts, and I got up as quickly as I could to remove us from the scene—not for their sakes, of course, but to spare the little’s girl’s feelings. As I pushed my younger son’s stroller away I heard the little girls’ mom say, in as sweet and calm a voice as you can imagine: “Okay, guys, I think it’s time to go.” And that just got to me.
On the drive home I couldn’t stop thinking about how that scene had played out. It occurred to me that they probably went through something like that dozens of times a day. Hundreds of times. What would that be like? What could I be teaching my children so they could understand how to respond better next time? Is “don’t stare” even the right thing to teach, or is there something deeper? All this stuff was flying through my head on the long car ride home while my boys slept in the back seat of the car. I was literally obsessing about it, so after a while I turned on the radio just to keep myself from thinking about it and the first thing that started to play was Natalie Merchant’s Wonder. It was so amazing because that song had always been one of my absolute favorites—but that night the words really hit me, almost like I was hearing them for the first time. People see me—I’m a challenge to your balance. I’m over your heads, how I confound you and astound you, to know I must be one of the wonders of god’s own creation… It was like the song had been written for this girl I had just seen.
The book kind of wrote itself in my head on that drive home. I would write the story from the child’s point of view. It would help people understand—not pity. I’m just like you, the child would say. I’m an ordinary kid—except for this one thing. And I would call the book Wonder because this child is a wonder.
Can you talk about the research you did into Auggie’s medical condition?
I spent a few weeks researching genetics—specifically facial anomalies in children. I don’t want to call them deformities because I think that’s an ugly word, an unnecessary word. There are many syndromes out there, all with varying degrees of abnormality. It wasn’t a pleasant subject to research. I decided not to get too specific about Auggie’s malady in the book, but in my head he has a severe form of Treacher-Collins syndrome complicated by some other unknown mysterious syndrome that makes his particular condition quite rare.
How did you come up with the idea for Mr. Browne’s precepts?
When I was a thirteen or fourteen years old, I started collecting sayings and precepts. I’m not even sure why or how, but I remember liking them, thinking they were cool. “Fortune favors the bold” was a favorite.
As for Mr. Browne: I had a wonderful English teacher named Mr. Browne in high school, and though he never taught us precepts, he’s the kind of teacher who would have. He was very tall and had a blond beard. The Mr. Browne in the book is my nod to Mr. Browne in my high school. I hope he’s reading this.
WONDER is told from the perspective of several different characters. Was it harder to capture the voice of some characters over others?
I didn’t start out with the intention of going into the other voices, but it seemed like a natural a transition as I was writing. There came a point where I was just so intrigued by Via that I wanted to hear directly from her. And Summer and Jack and the others. So no, it wasn’t that hard to get into their voices because it was a natural curiosity that led me to them, and then they led me through the story.
I decided to make the main character a boy because I have sons and I’m surrounded by boys all the time. I felt I had a good handle on the way they talked and the things they did. And my older son had just finished his first year in middle school so it was all very fresh in my mind.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why? What was the most difficult chapter to write?
Hmm, that’s a tough question. I have a couple of different favorites. I love Auggie so much—I loved when I was writing from his point of view. I liked when characters surprised me. Miranda was a surprise to me. I like Jack’s pluck. I love Summer. I wish I was more like her. And Via’s whole story is amazing to me. She’s strong and fierce but insecure, too. I love Justin because he loves Via.
I found the scene that takes place in the woods very difficult to write because it got scary for me: those kids from the other school were so mean. As the situation unfolded it all felt so real to me, and that made me sad. But one of my absolute favorite moments in the book happens then, too. It’s when Auggie wants to thank Amos and the other guys for coming to his rescue, and he lifts his hand to give a high five though he has no idea if Amos will high five him back, given that these were the same boys that had avoided getting near him for months. That Auggie could find the courage to raise his hand for the high five—not knowing if it would be reciprocated—is such an extraordinary act of courage to me. That moment moved me. And when he wept in the woods and those same boys comforted him.
What do you hope readers come away with after finishing WONDER?
I hope that readers will come away with the idea that they are noticed: their actions are noted. Maybe not immediately or directly or even in a way that seems obvious, but if they’re mean, someone suffers. If they’re kind, someone benefits. And the choice is theirs: whether to be noticed for being kind or for being mean. They get to choose who they want to be in this world. And it’s not their friends and not their parents who make those choices: it’s them.
I also hope parents take heed and do more interfering in their kids’ lives. I’ve talked to so many parents, friends of mine, who kind of stood back and shrugged off their kids’ behavior in middle school, as if being mean were an unavoidable evil that they “hope” their kid would grow out of. I had one dad tell me once about his son, “Well, he doesn’t listen to me anymore so I stopped wasting my time trying to tell him what to do.” To me, that’s exactly when your kid needs you the most: when he acts like he’s not listening anymore. What I think is that deep down inside, we’re so grateful that it’s not our kid who’s being picked on we look the other way when it’s someone else’s kid. So long as it’s not your kid at the bottom of that ladder, you know? But parents have to resist that way of thinking. They need to remind their kids to be kind and do right exactly because it’s the hardest thing to do at that age.
In the end, I just hope that readers will come away with more self-awareness. If they can relate to how Auggie feels, they might think twice before saying something thoughtless should they ever encounter someone different from them. I’m hoping they’ll find a character they can relate to and say, “Hmm, that’s kind of like who I am in my school.” It might make them rethink who they are. Are you more like Jack or more like Julian? Are you Summer or are you Charlotte? If a kid like Auggie were in your class, how would you treat him? These are good questions to ask yourself if you’re ten or eleven years old. I don’t see why children—even young ones—shouldn’t be aware of what they put out in the world.
Which of the characters were you the most like as a child?
I wish I could say I would have been Summer or even Jack, but unfortunately, I don’t think I was that good. If a kid like Auggie had come into my class when I was in the 5th grade, I think I would have been most like Charlotte: nice enough, never mean, but never really extending myself, either. Or I might have been a bit like Amos. I would have defended the underdog, but it would have taken some kind of drama to get me there.
In terms of character and temperament, I think Via is very much like I was at fifteen.
You never write from the point of view of the parents or any grown-ups. Why?
I wanted to keep this in the realm of kids. If we had heard from the parents, I think the story would have taken a different arc. It would have widened the storyline, and I wanted to keep it simple. One year in the life of this extraordinary boy and his loving family.
I love the mom and dad. I know the mom’s a bit idealized, but that’s because she’s only ever seen from the point of view of her kids. I think she’s careful to only show them one side of who she is, though I’m sure she has another side to her, a fiercer side. In temperament I think she’s probably a lot like Via. But life has taught her to be patient. Life has taught her to have faith in the goodness of people. And the dad’s the kind of person who will make the best of every situation and try to find the humor in it, in life.
WONDER has already been licensed by a number of publishers around the world. The Random House sales reps chose the book as their “spring rep pick” and booksellers from all over have embraced Auggie’s story. Did you anticipate this response from readers?
Not in my wildest dreams! But I love that people are responding so well. I love that they’re getting that this really isn’t just a book about a kid with a facial anomaly: it’s a celebration of kindness. The impact of kindness. I think that’s why people are so moved by parts of the book. We like to see people doing good, rising beyond our expectations to do something noble. It’s not the big heroic gestures but the small moments of kindness that shape the world.
In addition to writing, you work in book publishing. Can you talk about your experience as an author versus a publisher?
I’ve spent my entire adult life in book publishing. My husband’s in publishing. All my best friends are in publishing. I still get excited by launch meetings and BEAs and talking to librarians and booksellers—even after twenty years in the business. It’s what I love. And I know firsthand how hard people work to make books. The truth is, I think some authors don’t realize that when they get a book published, it’s not really just about them: we’re ALL publishing their book. We ALL have a vested interest in its success. When an author hands in a manuscript, it’s the beginning of this great, amazing collaboration. The best authors I’ve ever worked with are the ones that know this. And that’s what being in publishing has taught me: how to be that kind of author, the kind I’ve always loved working with.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring writers?
I would sum it up with another precept I wrote down when I was a teenager. It was from The Agony and the Ecstasy: “The most perfect guide is nature. Continue without fail to draw something every day.” Substitute the word “write” for the word “draw,” and that would be my advice. Just write. Don’t wait for the perfect moment: there’s usually no such thing.
What were some of your favorite books growing up? What do you like to read now?
The first book I remember loving was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, which I read when I was seven. Later came Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and W.H.D. Rouse’s The Illiad. Then more normal preteen books like Little Women and everything by Judy Blume. As a young teen I gobbled up books like Shogun and Centennial —all those superlong epics that were so popular in the 70s. Hawaii. The Thorn Birds. One summer it was The Lord of the Rings and all the Dune books. And, like Via, I read War and Peace when I was fifteen.
As for now, unfortunately I don’t read nearly as much as I did when I was a teen. I’m into Cormac McCarthy, Robert Olmstead. The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien. Margot Livesey’s Eva Moves the Furniture. I loved The Book Thief. Brideshead Revisited will always be a favorite. If I had to choose three books to take with me on a deserted island, it would be The Little Prince, Cosmicomics, and Ficciones.
What is your writing process like?
I have a fulltime job and a husband and two children, so I don’t have the luxury of waiting for a free moment to write. I have to grab my time and be very disciplined about it. My routine when writing Wonder was this: I would come home from work, have dinner with my family, help with some homework, watch some TV—usually fall asleep around ten—and then wake up around midnight and write for two to three hours when everyone was asleep. It sounds hard but it really wasn’t. I was so into the story and the characters I couldn’t wait to get back to them.
What are you working on next?
I was about a hundred pages into an urban fantasy series when I stopped that to start writing Wonder. I thought I would get right back to that after Wonder, but something else has taken hold. It’s called That Was the River. I can’t explain what it’s about yet because it’s so nascent.
Here’s just a taste of the early praise for WONDER:
“You’ll laugh out loud and cry joyful tears following Auggie. This is one of the most moving and purely uplifting books I’ve read in a long while.” -Rachel Hochberg, Children’s Book World
“Prepare yourself. Your eyes will open, your heart will warm and you will find yourself cheering for August.” -Judy Hobbs, Third Place Books
“This unforgettable story, told from different points of view, has the power to change the way people think.” -Joyce Tiber, Next Chapter Books
“I finished it in two sittings and LOVED it! This book will be the perfect read aloud for 6th, 7th or even 8th grades.” -Mary Yockey, Library Director of Crone Middle School
“I haven’t been this moved by a book in quite some time. Absolutely beautiful. It… lends itself so well to starting amazing, open discussions about kindness and empathy.” -Nicole Yasinsky, The Booksellers at Laurelwood
“Wonder is a book everyone should read.” -Caitlin Baker, University Bookstore
At Random House, we fell in love with Auggie, his friends and his family. Many Thanks to R. J. Palacio for joining us today and for Auggie and his story.
Wonder will touch everyone who reads it. What does it mean to you? #thewonderofwonder (don’t forget to use this hashtag-thanks!)
And that’s not all!
Psst…we hear the book trailer for WONDER is expected soon! It was filmed in Brooklyn with real students from the Berkeley Carroll School. Can’t wait to see how they interpreted this WONDERful read!
At RAoR we always welcome your feedback–if you have comments post them here and share them on Twitter and Facebook too. #thewonderofwonder