As a child, R.J. Palacio loved the fantastical stories of Greek mythology. She remembers trips to the library to check out "D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths" again and again.
“It’s beautifully rendered, beautifully told. It just captivated me,” Palacio said recently.
But when Palacio began writing her own book years later, the subject was no fantasy. It was about a boy born with a condition that caused his face to form differently from those of most children. On the surface, young Auggie Pullman doesn't resemble Hercules or Odysseus, but the 10-year-old's experience navigating school outside his home for the first time is no less heroic. The book, "Wonder," has captivated millions of young readers since it was published in 2012. Potentially millions more will discover the story in the new film adaptation.
Palacio spoke to KidsPost by phone from her home in New York about "Wonder" and the movement it has spurred called "Choose Kind."
KidsPost: You have said "Wonder" was inspired by missing a "teaching moment." What was that?
R.J. Palacio: I was with my two sons, and my younger one was only 3. We found ourselves in close proximity to a girl who had a visible facial difference. My son began to cry. In my haste to shield the little girl of my son's reaction to her, I whisked them away.
It might have looked as though I was whisking my son away from seeing her face, but it was just the opposite. What I wished I’d done is turned to the little girl and the mom and started up a conversation. I didn’t do that.
[Later that day,] I got to feeling what it must be like to get stared at everywhere you go, to have awkward situations all the time. Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder” came on [the radio], and that song . . . there was something in the optimism of that song. The idea of owning one’s difference. I thought that maybe this was the book that I was supposed to write.
KP: Do you think kids understand that there's more to the book than an anti-bullying message?
RJP: I definitely do. I know that the book was very much used to open up discussions in schools about bullying. The message isn't exactly "be kind"; it's "choose kind." . . . I always talk about wanting to inspire kindness. You have to give them the choice of kindness. . . . The consequences of their choice matters.
KP: What stories have you heard about kids putting "Choose Kind" into action?
RJP: So many at this point. I get emails every day from teachers, from students saying that they were inspired to fundraise for Operation Smile or Smile Train. Every community seems to sort of do it in a different way. From what I hear, it has inspired a lot of "do-goodism." . . . I had a dad tell me that going to the playground used to be a real issue for his son. They had to think twice about it. With the release of "Wonder," it's completely different. People will come up to this kid and say, "Are you like Auggie Pullman?"
KP: Did you think early on that the book would make a good movie?
RJP: I did think it would make a good movie. I see the scenes as I'm writing them. There's a real flesh-and-blood component. I was perplexed about how they would go about casting Auggie. It was clear that . . . [the filmmakers initially] didn't know how to go about those challenges. They sent out a nationwide casting call. That pool of people who are the right age, who have the same facial deformities, whose parents would let them off school . . . and then who could act was very small.
Jacob [Tremblay] is a genius of an actor. He would have a way of bringing Auggie to life. . . . I think they made the right call. I think that once they figured that out, the movie really came together.
KP: Has your vision of the characters changed because of the movie?
RJP: Yes. [Auggie's mom] Isabel for me is now Julia Roberts. And [dad] Nate is Owen Wilson. The kids are absolutely the personification of the kids in the book. All the friend characters are literally exactly the way I imagined them. The only one that is different is Auggie himself. In my mind, his facial differences are more severe than they are portrayed in the movie. But I understand why [he's portrayed that way].
KP: The movie's director, Stephen Chbosky, called "Wonder" an eternal good. What would you hope this and future generations take from the book?
RJP: If it could have the impact that a book like ["To Kill a Mockingbird"] could have, I would be grateful for the rest of my days . . . My son read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in seventh grade. [I was] reminded of how good that book is. For all the ways things have changed, things haven't changed enough. If it could have that kind of enduring ability to change the world, I could rest thinking that was a great thing. If this is my legacy, I'll take it.
Books for the holidays and beyond
R.J. Palacio shares five of her favorite books of 2017.
It Takes a Village , by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Illustrations by Marla Frazee (Paula Wiseman, ages 4 to 8)
With very few words and gorgeous illustrations, this picture book manages to deliver a message about kindness — as delivered through citizenship, work ethic and compassion — that will inspire children to think of themselves as part of a community, a village. And the village is the world. Its message resonates now more than ever: Let’s make the world a better place — together.
Let's Pretend We Never Met , by Melissa Walker (HarperCollins, ages 8 to 12)
Mattie is the new girl in town, which is never easy. Luckily for her, Agnes, her next-door neighbor, becomes a great new friend. She’s funny, fun and makes up great games. But when school starts, Mattie discovers that her new best friend also happens to be the “weird girl” in sixth grade. In fact, although it’s never stated, Agnes is probably on the autism spectrum. She doesn’t care about how she fits in socially — that’s part of her charm — but Mattie cares. Will her friendship with Agnes derail her chances at popularity? I love how this book gets the fragile ecosystem that is middle school: the hierarchies of popularity, the conflicting loyalties of friends, the self-conscious strain of individuality. There’s a purity to the voice that feels very real, very Judy Blume. Loved it!
Amina's Voice , by Hena Khan (Salaam Reads, ages 8 to 12)
Amina and Soojin are best friends. They have many things in common — names that don’t sound like their classmates’, immigrant parents, family traditions that are not traditionally “American” — but they also disagree on some things. Soojin seems to want to become assimilated, adopt an American name, make friends with Emily, who used to act annoyed by their “foreignness.” Amina just wants things to go on the way they used to. As a first-generation American, I can relate to these two characters very much — down to having a good friend decide, in the sixth grade, to change her name to the Americanized version of her Spanish name. What I loved about this book is that we not only get to know these girls, but we also get to know their families and their points of view. When Amina’s mosque is destroyed by vandals, we feel her horror. We feel her joy when her friends, school and community rally to support her family. For inspiring empathy in young readers, you can’t get better than this book.
Ben Franklin's in My Bathroom! by Candace Fleming. Illustrations by Mark Fearing (Schwartz & Wade, ages 7 to 10)
This book, a promising start to a new time-travel series, is perfect for readers of the “Magic Tree House” books. The concept here is that the heroes don’t travel back in time but are paid a visit by a historical person, which makes for a pretty hysterical premise. In this book, it’s Ben Franklin who is “summoned” accidentally (with the help of an antique radio) to the home of 10-year old Nolan and his little sister Olive. Seeing old Ben’s delight at how many of his inventions are still in use today made for some genuinely funny quips, and the story moved quickly to a satisfying conclusion. I loved the epilogue, which gives curious readers more information about things referenced throughout the book. It’s a smart book, well crafted and entertaining.
5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior , by Mark and Alexis Siegel. Illustrations by Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller and Boya Sun (Random House, ages 8 to 12)
This new graphic novel by brothers Mark and Alexis Siegel is mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s not easy to effectively introduce a brand-new universe, but the five worlds in this epic fantasy adventure are so exquisitely imagined that we immediately understand their politics, history and precariousness of their existence (they are on the brink of extinction, we learn in the opening pages). The story follows a trio of friends through worlds of sand, toxic slums and ancient mysteries as they race to save their worlds, meeting plant people, starballers and androids along the way. “5 Worlds” couldn’t help but remind me of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but I also caught a little “Star Wars” action in there (a scene of the three heroes standing, backs to viewers, in front of a round window facing out to a field of stars is a definite homage to the end of “Empire Strikes Back”). For kids who love fantasy and other-world adventures, and for any fans of graphic novels, this book is a must-read.
Washington Post book reviewers offer their top children’s books of 2017.
Wishtree , by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel & Friends, ages 10 to 14)
An old oak tree, a raccoon family and other wild neighbors try to help a friendless
immigrant girl before she is forced to move, but their efforts endanger the tree. Short chapters speed this fantasy to a surprising end.
Me and Marvin Gardens, by Amy Sarig King (Arthur A. Levine, ages 8 to 12)
Obe is desperate! He doesn’t want anyone to harm the plastic-eating animal he’s discovered, but its toxic poop is ruining the land. This compelling, eco-friendly tale gets you thinking about recycling in a whole different way.
Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow, ages 8 to 12)
In a single, eventful day, four kids cross paths in this intriguingly plotted novel about the mysterious disappearance of a boy and his pet guinea pig.
The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial, ages 9 to 12)
During World War II, Ada must deal with ration books, bombs and surgery on her clubfoot. Then a secretive German teenager moves into Ada's crowded home in England. Is the girl a spy? Ada learns tough truths about herself and others in this complex, fast-moving story.
Lucky Broken Girl , by Ruth Behar (Nancy Paulsen, age 10 and older)
Ruthie and her immigrant family no sooner move to New York City than a car accident forces her to heal in bed for a year. Ruthie's vivid tale of body casts, go-go boots and new friends is based on the author's childhood in the 1960s.
The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid , by Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane, ages 5 to 10)
Before Zaha Hadid died last year at the age of 65, she had won the biggest prizes in architecture. Through vivid wording and images, Winter shows how Hadid’s Iraqi childhood influenced her and the remarkable buildings she designed.
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook, ages 10 to 14)
An inspired athlete who won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics, Jim Thorpe did not have citizenship until 1924, when Native Americans were finally given that status. Sheinkin skillfully explores Thorpe’s life; the early, brutal days of football; and the boarding schools meant to force young Native Americans to adapt to Euro-American ways.
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives, by Dashka Slater (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, age 14 and older)
On November 4, 2013, a 16-year-old boy on an Oakland, California, bus set fire to another teenager’s thin white skirt. In revisiting this horrific incident, Slater provides a nuanced portrait of both teenagers and delves into the hot-button issues of gender nonconformity, bias crimes and juvenile justice.
Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (Henry Holt, age 12 and older)
Packed with compelling images and ideas, this impressive book examines how two remarkable people risked their lives to document conflict and resistance in the years before World War II.
The Quilts of Gee's Bend, by Susan Goldman Rubin (Abrams, ages 8 to 12)
Featuring photographs from the 1930s, portraits of contemporary quilters and gorgeous, full-color images of more than 20 quilts, Rubin's book celebrates the inventiveness and community spirit of the Gee's Bend, Alabama, quilters.
The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Communicating With the Dead, by Deborah Noyes (Viking, age 10 and older)
Noyes presents the valuable story of Houdini's crusade against fake mediums and their phony séances. Aided by fascinating archival images, Noyes shows how vulnerable people were tricked and how Houdini uncovered hoaxes.
A Different Pond , by Bao Phi. Illustrations by Thi Bui. (Capstone, ages 4 to 8)
A boy goes fishing with his father before dawn in poet Phi’s simple recollection
of his childhood. He and his father, who learned to fish as a boy in Vietnam, would go out in the dark to fish under the starry sky near Minneapolis so that their refugee family might have enough to eat. Bui’s illustrations convey the strength of the affection between father and son.
Charlie & Mouse, by Laurel Snyder. Illustrations by Emily Hughes. (Chronicle, ages 3 to 7)
What do you do if you want to earn some money but all you have is a wagon and some rocks from your yard? Try to sell the rocks, of course! These four easy-to-read stories about a lively pair of brothers who are good friends with great ideas are funny and full of happiness.
Grand Canyon , by Jason Chin. (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, ages 5 to 10)
Turn a page of this spectacular picture book and find yourself in another time, deep in the beautiful river-carved canyon in Arizona. Here, ripples in the stone mark an ancient tidal flat, and there, a fossil trilobite might remind you that long ago, this place was under the ocean. Sketchbook-style drawings of native plants and animals complement the impressive illustrations.
Town Is by the Sea , by Joanne Schwartz. Illustrations by Sydney Smith. (Groundwood, ages 4 to 7)
The young narrator describes his day playing outdoors while his father works under the
sea, mining coal. Sunlight glints on the waves near this small Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, town with bright intensity, contrasting with the deep darkness where the men are working. When his father arrives home, he has a smile and a hug for the boy, who falls asleep listening to the waves, knowing that, "One day, it will be my turn."
Tony , by Ed Galing. Illustrations by Erin E. Stead. (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, ages 2 to 6)
"Large, sturdy, with wide gentle eyes and a ton of love" — this is how the poet remembers Tony, the patient horse who pulled the cart delivering milk, butter and eggs through his town starting every morning at dawn. Tony accepted early morning hugs and greetings with a bow and, occasionally, a little dance. Stead's illustrations capture Tony's large head and strong body in the yellow glow of street lamps' light.
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