R.J. Palacio lives in NYC with her husband, two sons, and two dogs. For many years, she was an art director and book jacket designer, designing covers for countless well-known and not so well-known writers in every genre of fiction and nonfiction. She always wanted to write, though. She kept waiting for the perfect time to start writing, but found that it’s never the perfect time to start writing a book. So she decided to just go for it. WONDER is her first novel. WONDER is the story of Auggie, a boy with severe facial deformities (or, as you prefer to call them, facial anomalies) who’s entering the fifth grade at Beecher Prep after being homeschooled all his life. While WONDER is a book that deals with bullying, you’ve said it’s ultimately a story about the power of kindness. Why?
Bullying can be a lot of different things. There are some obvious forms of bullying that happen to Auggie in the book, but there’s the insidious kind of bullying that happens that is less obvious. That kind of bullying—and I’m not sure the word “bullying” is even the right word here—is harder to stop than the other kind because it’s harder to see. Social isolation. Malicious gossip. Hostile group dynamics. In my mind, the only way to combat these more subtle forms of bullying is by creating awareness of their harm.
We can’t teach kids empathy, but we can help foster it. And we can’t teach kids to be kind, but we can show them how kindness can empower them. Kindness is the best antidote to that more subtle form of bullying. You credit an encounter you and your sons had with a young girl with facial anomalies similar to Auggie’s for inspiring WONDER. In prior interviews, you’ve expressed disappointment in the way you reacted to the situation. How did writing WONDER help you work through those emotions?
I was disappointed because I wished that I could have had the wherewithal to talk to the girl and her mother. Instead, I was so afraid my toddler would hurt her feelings by his reaction, I bolted—and that just made it all worse.
Writing the book was my way of making it right. I guess it was my way of creating a world in which a girl like that would be okay, and happy, and feel safe. Like the song says, “with love, with patience, and with faith, she’ll make her way.” I wished for her a joyful life. Auggie is the protagonist of WONDER, but the story weaves his first-person account with those of his classmates and family members. Why did you choose to have the reader experience the story from so many angles?
I wanted to tell Auggie’s complete story, both from the outside and from within. He’s a smart kid, but he doesn’t always understand the impact—beyond the looks he gets—that he has on people around him. And I wanted to show that impact. To do that, I knew I had to leave his head, but I gave myself two rules: 1) the characters would all propel the narrative forward, and tell a piece of the larger story in mostly linear, forward-moving motion; 2) the characters would enhance Auggie’s story. Multiple reviewers have noted that by the end of the novel, the reader no longer thinks of Auggie in terms of the way he looks. How did you coax the reader through this transformation of perception?
I’m glad to hear that, but I can’t take credit for the way readers might have changed their thinking. It wasn’t conscious on my part to transform the reader’s perception about anything: I really was just telling Auggie’s story. If their vision of him changed, it’s to their credit. Some characters in WONDER bully Auggie, but others hurt him inadvertently. How can teachers and parents help students understand that their actions can be hurtful even if they’re not being openly mean?
We create empathy by asking questions: what would it be like to walk in someone else’s shoes? How would you feel if someone said that about you? Getting kids to think about the other person, other people, is the best way, I think, to having them understand the impact of their mean words. The real issue is making kids realize that they have control over the choices they make: they can either choose to be mean or they can choose to be kind.
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