Q&A with R. J. Palacio
Published on: 24 August 2017
A few years ago I took my sons for ice cream, and while my older son went inside to buy us our milk shakes, my younger son and I waited on the bench outside.
At a certain point I realised that sitting right next to me was a little girl with a severe craniofacial difference, her friend (or sister), and her mother.
When my younger son looked up and saw her, 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. I hurriedly tried to push him away in the stroller, not for his sake but to avoid hurting the girl's feelings, and in my haste I caused my older son to spill the shakes, and, well, it was quite a scene – the opposite of what I had hoped for. But 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.
For the rest of the day, 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? What I should have done, instead of trying to avoid the situation, was engage the girl and her mother in conversation. If my son cried, so be it: kids cry. But I should have set a better example for him, and shown him there was nothing to fear. Instead I panicked. I simply didn't have the wherewithal to know what to do in that situation.
Coincidentally, the song 'Wonder' by Natalie Merchant came on the radio that night, as I was thinking about the ice cream incident, and something about the words to the song just got to me. I started writing Wonder that very night.
What kind of research you did into Auggie's medical condition?
I spent a few weeks researching genetics – specifically craniofacial anomalies in children. There are many syndromes out there, all with varying degrees of abnormality. 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 a cleft lip and palate and some other unknown mysterious syndrome that makes his particular condition a medical wonder.
This book has a strong anti-bullying message. Were you bullied as a child?
Yes, it does have a strong anti-bullying message, and no, I wasn't bullied as a child. But I remember a lot about that time in my life, and I know that bullying takes many forms besides the more obvious physical kinds that occur. There's social isolation. There's ridicule. There's abandonment of friends. Those kinds of things I did experience, although never on the level Auggie does, of course. I remember kids like Julian. They feel emboldened and empowered by putting someone else down. The Julians of the world always need somebody to put down to feel elevated themselves. It's a very primitive feeling, about as emotionally immature as a person can be. Summer is on the opposite end of that spectrum: she's quite advanced, emotionally and spiritually.
What character do you like the most?
That's like asking a mom who her favourite child is. I can't answer that: I love them all.
What character do you identify with the most or is the most like you?
I wish I could say I was most like Summer, but that wouldn't be true. I try to be more like her every day, though. The character most like me is Isabel, the mom. Via's a lot like I was when I was fifteen. But the character I identify the most with as a girl, or who represents what I might have been like if a kid like Auggie came to my school, is Charlotte. I think a lot of kids can relate to Charlotte. She's nice enough, but she never really goes out of her way to be kind to Auggie. She'll wave hello from a distance, but she never sits down with him. She helps Jack behind the scenes, but she never openly sides with him. She's a good girl, but she's not quite brave enough to act on her good instincts. That kind of bravery sometimes doesn't come until you're older, and sometimes doesn't come at all.
Charlotte represents the difference between simply being nice, and choosing to be kind, which is a main theme of the book. She's the classic bystander, though I think by the end of the book she's become aware of this. I think in the sixth grade, she'll be an upstander, not a bystander.
Will there be a sequel to Wonder?
I'm flattered that so many kids ask me this, and offer me their beautiful and brilliant suggestions for what Auggie could be doing in the sixth grade, and in high school, and as an adult. But I don't think this is the kind of book that warrants a sequel. I chose to end the book on a happy note in Auggie's life, and I hope and pray for his well-being and happiness forever. Like his mom in the book, I have to believe that the world will be kind to Auggie and those like him. I have to believe that people will open their hearts to him. And maybe reading the book makes people think about the possibility of this happening. I wanted to tell Auggie's story to make readers wonder about who they are and who they can choose to be. My hope is that after reading the book, they will always choose to be kind.
What was your favourite part of the book?
Hmm, that's a tough question. I have a couple of different favourites. But I suppose it would be the scene that takes place in the woods. After the bullies are so horrible to Auggie and Jack, and they, along with Amos, Miles, and Henry escape through the cornfields, they take a moment to rest. In that moment, Jack thanks the other boys for saving them, and he high fives them. Auggie wants to thank them, too, and he lifts his hand in the air to give a high five, even though he has no idea if anyone 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. And when the boys do reciprocate it, and show him, for the first time in that entire school year, some genuine kindness and sympathy, well, that moment moves me. And when he wept those same boys comforted him.
What do you hope kids will come away with after finishing Wonder?
I hope that kids 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.
Did you know how popular Wonder would become?
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.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I would sum it up with a 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.
Bookbuzz is a reading programme from BookTrust that aims to help schools inspire a love of reading in 11 to 13-year-olds. Participating schools give their students the opportunity to choose their own book to take home and keep from a list of 17 titles.