It’s Valentine’s Day, which I think is fitting for the on-sale date of Wonder, our spotlight pick for February’s Best Books of the Month in Middle Grade and a book that I want to give everyone I know.
Wonder is a perfect Valentine because it has love and heartache, but it’s also a story about choosing kindness and having the courage to be our authentic selves–both attributes of the heart, in my opinion.
August “Auggie” Pullman is a 10-year-old boy with extreme facial abnormalities that are the result of a rare genetic mash-up. Homeschooled all his life, Auggie enters school for the fifth grade and he is not the only one changed by the experience. Author R.J. Palacio has created characters that are incredibly authentic–from Auggie’s inner dialogue to the intensely honest perspectives of his sister and new friends. I didn’t want the story to end, but of course, it does, in a conclusion that was everything I’d hoped for. It reminds me of a Jerry Spinelli book, like Loser, something I would recommend without hesitation.
Wonder is R.J. Palacio’s first book, and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. Read more about Wonder in an exclusive interview with author Laurel Snyder, who also writes books for middle graders (Bigger Than a Bread Box, Any Which Wall, Penny Dreadful)–an excerpt of their interview is below along with a trailer for the book. You can read the whole interview here (under A Best Books of the Month for Kids Exclusive). Happy Valentine’s Day! –Seira
Snyder: Let’s start at the beginning. Why Auggie? How did you arrive at the idea for this book? Was there a moment, a catalyst, a person who inspired this story?
Palacio: There’s a scene in the book in which Jack talks about the first time he sees Auggie. He’s sitting on a bench in front of an ice cream store with his babysitter and his little brother, who’s in a stroller. At a certain point, both he and his brother notice Auggie—and they don’t react well at all. The babysitter, in her attempt to shield Auggie from their reactions, makes things worse by hastening away in a rather obvious manner. As they’re leaving the scene, Jack overhears Auggie’s mom say to her kids, “Okay, guys, I think it’s time to go.” Her voice is calm and sweet, and the babysitter is mortified at how badly she and Jack and his little brother have handled the situation.
That scene actually happened to me about four or five years ago. I was with my sons visiting a friend who lives out of town, and at some point we found ourselves sitting next to a little girl who looked like Auggie. The scene played out exactly as it played out in the book—and afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about how poorly we had handled that encounter. My sons I could excuse: they were still young. But I hated the way I had responded. What could I have done differently? What should I be teaching my kids to prepare them for something like this? Is “don’t stare” even the right thing to teach them? What would it be like to walk in that child’s shoes? Since I’m a mom, that other mom just broke my heart. “Okay, guys, I think it’s time to go.” Her voice had been so serene, so gentle. She’d seen it all a million times before, I’m sure. I was in awe of her.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it as we drove home that night, and after a while, just to distract myself, I turned the radio on. Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder” came on right away, and it was something about the combination of that song and what had just happened that sparked the book. The first line of the book, the first paragraph, came to me in the car. I started writing the book the moment I got home.
Snyder: Wow, so you began with the outsider’s perspective, in a way. That’s fascinating. That makes me wonder—did you feel at all nervous, crafting a kid with a condition you haven’t experienced yourself? How did you research Wonder? How did you get inside Auggie’s head? There are some absolutely amazing touches—like how Halloween is his favorite holiday because it’s the one day of the year that he can go unnoticed. Did you imagine those touches, or did you gather those details from other people?
Palacio: I did some research on genetics and different types of craniofacial syndromes. There are websites, including those of organizations involved with these concerns, and I spent some time on them. But I really didn’t talk to anyone who had this kind of condition. Of course, it’s truly impossible to know what it’s like to experience something like that if you haven’t lived it yourself, but the feeling of being an outsider, not having friends, not fitting in—those are universal themes that aren’t that hard to tap into. In the book, every one of the characters has their own “issue” to deal with—Auggie just happens to have the one that’s the most obvious to the world.
I don’t know why, but I really felt like I understood Auggie, so it wasn’t hard for me to put myself inside his head. It seemed natural that he would love Halloween; most kids do anyway, but for Auggie it would be the most liberating feeling to be able to walk around wearing a mask. To not get noticed. That’s what he really wants, and Halloween’s the one night a year when he can do that.
Finding Auggie’s voice wasn’t a stretch because I have two sons. I’m around boys all the time. Sometimes I’d come home from work and there would be hordes of them hanging out, playing video games, being really loud. Since Auggie really is just a normal little boy—albeit one that looks very different from other little boys—it wasn’t hard to imagine what he would think about things, how he would respond.
Read the rest of the interview between Laurel Snyder and R.J. Palacio and watch a book trailer below.