Author R.J. Palacio on the Power of Wonder and the Choice to Choose Kind

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio is a book that sticks with you. And sticks.

In fact, nearly two years from its original 2012 release date, Wonder—the inspiring tale of fifth grader Auggie Pullman and his extraordinary face, still sits at the very top of the New York Times Middle Grade Bestseller list. But beyond the bestseller list, Wonder has become more than a book. The Choose Kind mantra endorsed in the book has taken on a life of its own, growing into a full-fledged movement in towns, libraries, schools, book clubs, and other organizations.

Palacio, a longtime publishing industry veteran herself, at Scribner, St. Martin’s Press, Henry Holt and most recently Workman Publishing, is continually surprised by the passionate, long-lasting response to her story. “I’ve been in publishing for 25 years, so I’ve been a part of thousands of books being launched—good books—and we know that the lifecycle for most great books is a month, maybe, at most. That’s kind of what I expected, and I’m not just saying that, it’s what I had always witnessed with rare exceptions…What’s happened [with Wonder] has far exceeded anything that even I can dream of—and I can dream so big. It’s beyond anything.”

The idea for August Pullman, a child born with a severe craniofacial deformity, came about after a brief encounter at an ice cream shop by Palacio and her children with a little girl who had a face very similar to Auggie’s in Wonder.

As Palacio explains in our Bibliostar.TV interview, her youngest son began to cry when they saw the girl, and Palacio herself was uncertain how to respond. “I panicked. What I should have done is talked to the little girl and set an example and used it as a teaching moment for my children to show them that there was nothing to be afraid of,” Palacio said. “Instead, I tried to leave the scene as quickly as possible, which ultimately didn’t make me feel good and I imagine didn’t make them feel good. So that got me thinking about what it must be like to have to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back.”

Upset with her response, Palacio was unable to let go of the event. “I obsessed about it a lot. I obsessed more than anything about the way the mom responded as we were leaving…I heard the little girl’s mom say, in as calm and sweet a voice as you can possibly imagine, ‘OK guys, I think its time to go.’ I realized that she had gone through this a million times. It was very heartbreaking.”

More than that, it was a life-changing moment for Palacio: “I started writing the book that night.”

From there, the character of Auggie took shape quickly: Funny, perceptive, confident, a little spoiled, but above all, sweet. But what makes Wonder so unforgettable is the honest and unsparing look at Auggie’s day-to-day experiences navigating the hallways of his new school, and the reactions of other students, teachers and parents to Auggie’s presence among them.

Though originally written with young readers in mind, the book has transcended any single genre or reading age. Like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and John Boyne‘s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Wonder resonates just as strongly with adult audiences. Book clubs, teachers, organizations, town reading groups—all have been inspired by Palacio’s wonderful cast of characters, so much so that the book has grown into a full-fledged campaign, empowering a legion of readers to “Choose Kind.”

“I have this responsibility to these kids who are so passionate about your book. They’re like evangelists for the book. I call them Wonder-vangelists, because they’re just they want it to be spread and I feel this responsibility to these kids who are so awesome and who are choosing kind.”

Some of the book’s biggest fans come from the craniofacial community itself. The Children’s Craniofacial Association (CCA) has adopted Wonder into its own program, complete with it’s own special edition of Wonder, with a customized resource page and “Choose Kind Challenge” in the front.

With the success of Wonder, visiting and reaching out to schools and communities has become part of her life, a part she is working to balance with her publishing career and her desire to write her next book. Despite the tug of various priorities, Palacio is thrilled to see her book connect so deeply. “It’s amazing when you talk to an 10-, 11- or 12-year-old and you tell them, you know, you have the power to not just make someone’s day, but to change someone’s life with a kind word with a kind thought or gesture. And consequently, you also have the power to really be remembered for being a jerk. You have the choice. Which do you want?”

Wonder is available now from Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Related Videos

Official Book Trailer for Wonder

Recorded at Book Expo America, New York, 2013.



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