NPR's Backseat Book Club
3:01 pm
Thu September 12, 2013

How One Unkind Moment Gave Way To 'Wonder'

Originally published on Thu September 12, 2013 4:16 pm

In Wonder, R.J. Palacio tells the story of Auggie, a tough, sweet, 10-year-old boy, who was born with distorted facial features — a "craniofacial difference" caused by an anomaly in his DNA.

Palacio tells NPR's Michele Norris that the book was inspired by a real-life encounter with her own kids six years ago. They were at an ice cream store and sat next to a little girl with a severe facial deformity. Palacio's 3-year-old son cried in fear, so the author grabbed her kids and fled. She was trying to protect the girl but also avoid her own discomfort.

"I was really angry at myself afterwards for the way I had responded," she admits. "What I should have done is simply turned to the little girl and started up a conversation and shown my kids that there was nothing to be afraid of. But instead what I ended up doing was leaving the scene so quickly that I missed that opportunity to turn the situation into a great teaching moment for my kids. And that got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to ... have to face a world every day that doesn't know how to face you back."

Palacio started writing the book that night. She says Auggie's character came to her fully formed. The book opens as he enters school and the story unfolds from several points of view — we get the perspective of his sister, his parents, his best friends, the do-gooders and the mean kids. One of Auggie's teacher challenges the kids: "When given the choice between being right, or being kind, choose kind."

And at the center of all these stories is the same challenge Palacio faced back at the ice cream store: how to confront the discomfort around difference; how to "choose kindness."

The book has made an impact. Wonder has been a best-seller, and the book has been embraced by towns, schools and the craniofacial community. The books has inspired readers to write songs, poems, chapters from different points of view; send cards; and even celebrate Auggie's birthday. Palacio is humbled by the reaction.


Interview Highlights

On how surprised she was by the movement Wonder sparked

Little did I know — I mean the "choose kind" quote was not mine. It's one that I heard a couple years ago, by [author and motivational speaker] Wayne Dyer, and I put it in there because I think it's such a beautiful quote, and it's so true. And it's something that really resonates with kids, because they kind of get it right away. You know, sometimes because especially at that age, you're in an argument with a friend and you know you're right, [but] you need reminding that ultimately the important thing is to choose to be kind, not choose to be right.

On Auggie's friend Summer

Summer is a character who is in the fifth grade and befriends Auggie almost from the instant she meets him. There's no one sitting with him at lunchtime, and she feels sorry for him. So that's why she's motivated to sit down with him, but she soon realizes that he's just a great kid, he's a fun kid, he's really funny. ... So she might've felt sorry for him the first day, but after that she decides to sit down with him at lunchtime — that's their little time together — because she really just likes his company.

On the difference between Summer and Charlotte, another girl at the school

So, Summer epitomizes that idea of choosing to be kind. Charlotte, on the other hand, is a character who is asked to befriend Auggie and she does, but in a very distant way. She never really goes out of her way to be friends with Auggie. She's friendly enough, but always kind of from a distance. She'll wave at him, she'll say "Hey Auggie," she's not one of the kids that's mean to him, but she never really pushes herself to do anything other than be friendly. So to me she kind of symbolizes the whole notion of ... there's a difference between being nice and choosing kind. ... I wish with all my heart that I could say that I would have been like Summer but, if I'm completely honest, I would say I was probably more like Charlotte when I was that age. I probably would have been nice — I know I was never mean — but I don't think I went out of my way to be as kind as I could have been.

On an email she got from a 91-year-old woman

She wrote to say that, you know, she's had a wonderful life, but when she read Wonder she was reminded of something that had happened to her in a lunchroom when she was 13 years old, where some girls were somewhat cruel to her. I read it to kids when I speak to them, because it reminds them just how much their actions are remembered by people, and do you want to be remembered eight decades later by someone for an act of unkindness or an act of kindness? Your actions are remembered, and you have the power to not only make someone's day but to change someone's life.

On how Wonder has unexpectedly made Palacio an advocate for children born with craniofacial differences

In a way it's a beautiful thing for me, because it seems like a chance for me to do over that one unfortunate situation that happened in front of the ice cream store. There's a certain act of atonement here, and the fact that maybe I'm helping this little girl, without her knowing, in some way because of Wonder — really, there's a nice little irony that is pretty special for me.

Special thanks to Mrs. Roth and Mr. Atwell's fifth-grade classes at Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Washington, D.C., for helping us out this month.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

It's time now for NPR's Backseat Book Club. We love being popular with drivers, but we also like to high-five those of you who are listening while doing your homework at the kitchen table or riding home in the backseat. Each month, NPR's Michele Norris introduces us to a must-read book.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: For September, that book is "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio. "Wonder" tells the story of Auggie, a boy entering a new school as a fifth grader in New York City.

JACK MAYSAK: I know I'm not an ordinary 10-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary, I guess. And I feel ordinary inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look away thing. Here's what I think. The only reason I'm not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

NORRIS: That's fifth grader Jack Maysak reading from this month's book, "Wonder," the story of Auggie, real name: August Pullman. In so many ways, he is both ordinary and extraordinary. Because of an anomaly in his DNA, Auggie has a craniofacial difference. His features are severely distorted. Author R.J. Palacio says "Wonder" was inspired by a real-life encounter with her own kid six years ago. They were at an ice cream store when they sat next to a little girl with a severe facial deformity. Palacio's 3-year-old son looked at that girl and cried in fear. So the author grabbed her kids and fled. She was trying to protect that girl, but also avoid her own discomfort.

R.J. PALACIO: I was really angry at myself afterwards for the way I had responded because I had - what I should have done is simply turn to the little girl and started up a conversation, and shown my kids that there was nothing to be afraid of. But instead, what I ended up doing was leaving the scene so quickly that I missed that opportunity to turn the situation into a great teaching moment for my kids. And that got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to - basically to have to face a world every day that doesn't know how to face you back.

NORRIS: Palacio started writing her book that night. Auggie, she says, came to her fully formed. The book opens with Auggie entering school and the story unfolds from several points of view - his sister, his parents, his best friends, the do-gooders and the mean kids. A teacher gives the kids this challenge: When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind. And at the center of all these stories is the same challenge Palacio faced back at the ice cream store: How to confront the discomfort around difference, how to choose kindness.

It's hard to overstate the impact of this book. "Wonder" has been a best-seller in towns, schools, and the craniofacial community have all embraced the book. It's even sparked a movement. Palacio says she's humbled by the reaction.

PALACIO: Little did I know - I mean, the choose kind, quote, was not mine. It's one that I've heard a couple of years ago by Wayne Dyer. And I put it in there because I think it's such a beautiful quote, and it's so true. And it's something that really resonates with kids because they kind of get it right away, that, you know, because sometimes, especially at that age, you're in an argument with a friend and you know you're right, you need reminding that, ultimately, the important thing is to actually choose to be kind. Not choose to be right.

NORRIS: You need those reminders for your entire life.

(LAUGHTER)

PALACIO: Exactly.

NORRIS: Not just when you're on the playground.

PALACIO: It's true.

NORRIS: We have questions from Mrs. Roth's fifth grade class here in Washington.

JOSIAH: My name is Josiah and I'm 10 years old. What kind of person were you as a child, Summer or Charlotte?

PALACIO: That is a really good question, actually.

NORRIS: And we should explain to our listeners the difference between Summer and Charlotte.

PALACIO: Sure. Well, Summer is a character who is in the 5th grade and befriends Auggie for no other reason than because she kind of feels a little badly for him and there's no one sitting with him at lunchtime and - so that's why she's motivated to sit down with him. But she soon realizes that he's just a great kid. He's a fun kid. He's really funny. And in fact, the book...

NORRIS: That's when the sense of humor comes out.

PALACIO: It's - yeah. He's a real funny, very astute kind of kid. And so she might have felt sorry for him the first day, but after that, she decides to sit down with him at lunchtime because she really just likes his company. Charlotte, on the other hand, is a character who is asked to befriend Auggie, and she does, but always kind of from a distance. She'll wave at him. She'll say, hey, Auggie. She's not one of the kids that's mean to him. But she never really pushes herself to do anything other than be friendly.

But there's a difference. There's a difference between being nice and choosing kind. And to answer the question, I wish, with all my heart, that I could say that I would've been like Summer. But if I'm completely honest, I would say I was probably more like Charlotte when I was that age. I probably would've been nice. I know I was never mean, but I don't think I went out of my way to be as kind as I could've been.

NORRIS: You've traveled all over the United States now. You've been to libraries, to schools, to conferences, is there a particular story that really stays with you now, someone you met, a particular reaction to the book, the letters that students give you, the songs they write? Because I understand they do write songs, they're inspired to.

PALACIO: They do. They've been writing songs. They write poems. They write chapters from different points of view. They've been sending cards. People celebrate Auggie's birthday. One, believe it or not, is an email that I got from a woman who's 91 years old. And she wrote to say that, you know, she's had a wonderful life, but when she read "Wonder," she was reminded of something that has happened to her in a lunch room when she was 13 years old - where some girls were very, very - were somewhat cruel to her.

I read it to kids when I speak to them because it reminds them just how much their actions are remembered by people, and do you want to be remembered eight decades later by someone for an act of unkindness or an act of kindness. Your actions are remembered, and you have the power to not only make someone stay, but to change someone's life.

NORRIS: You know, when I asked you about the journey, I guess what I'm most interested in is how you have, in many ways, become an advocate for children who have craniofacial differences and for, you know, the whole idea of protecting children from those who might want to bully them or place them in some kind of box. Were you prepared for that?

PALACIO: No. And in a way, it's a beautiful thing for me because it seems like it's a chance for me to do over that one unfortunate situation that happened in front of the ice cream store. And there's a certain act of atonement here and the fact that maybe I'm helping this little girl without her knowing in some way because if "Wonder" really - you know, there's a nice little irony there that is pretty special for me.

NORRIS: R.J. Palacio, her book is called "Wonder." Special thanks to Mrs. Roth and Mr. Atwell's fifth grade classes at Hyde Addison Elementary School here in Washington, D.C. They helped us out this month. And we can use your help for our next book. It's called "Plunked" by Michael Northrop. How does a sixth grade baseball player overcome getting plunked on the head? Write to us at backseatbookclub@npr.org. Happy reading. Michele Norris, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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