Author R.J. Palacio | Interview
Rarely does a chance encounter inspire a hit novel, but author R.J. Palacio credits a difficult-to-navigate social encounter among kids as her creative epiphany. With more than 20 years in the publishing industry as an art director and book-jacket designer professionally known as Raquel Jaramillo, Palacio released her best-selling middle-grade novel Wonder (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16) in February. Wonder's already received glowing praise from the likes of Booklist and Entertainment Weekly, and we wouldn't be surprised if your youngster felt the same.
Wonder follows August Pullman, affectionately known as Auggie, while he begins fifth grade at a small school in Manhattan. Unlike all of his classmates, this is Auggie’s first time attending school with other children. He'd been kept apart because of another uniqueness: his disfigured face. His endearing tale has touched its audience, from kids to adults, in no small part because it promotes kindness and bravery.
In advance of her Naperville appearance at Anderson's Bookshop this Saturday, April 14, at 2pm, Palacio spoke with TOC Kids by phone from her office in New York City, where she lives with her husband and two sons.
What was your inspiration for Wonder?
I found myself, several years ago, sitting next to a little girl with a very severe facial disfigurement—very much like Auggie’s—in front of an ice cream store. I was with my two children. My younger son was about three-and-a-half at the time, still in a stroller. My older son was maybe about 11, and he’d gone inside to get us some milkshakes.
My younger son hadn’t seen the little girl yet, but I knew the moment he looked up from what he was doing in the stroller that he would not react well. Because he did indeed look up when my older son did come out. There were tears involved. I was mortified. I didn’t want my children to be causing this little girl to have any sort of discomfort or feel badly. They were doing it, and it was beyond my control.
As I left the scene, I heard the little girl’s mother say, very calmly and very sweetly, “Okay guys, I think it’s time to go.” My heart just went out to this woman and her daughter. I just thought about how many times they must have gone through something like that. I started to think a lot about what it’d be like to walk in their shoes. I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about it, about what I could have done differently. My children could have reacted differently. What could I be teaching them so they wouldn’t respond like that, which was out of fear?
That night the song “Wonder” [by Natalie Merchant] happened to come on the radio. It was a song I’d always loved, but I guess I really, really listened to the words that night because of everything that had happened. Something between listening to the song and the incident that was still fresh in my mind, it became the book. I started writing that very night.
What kind of research did you do on facial abnormalities and the children who have them?
I started writing first, and at a certain point, I decided I did need to inform myself a little bit more. I did a lot of research online. I read some books on it. I didn’t want to get too specific when it came to what type of facial anomaly Auggie had because I didn’t think, in a sense, it was that important. The whole idea really isn’t what he looks like, but how people respond to what he looks like. While I got a little specific in certain parts, I tried to be as vague as possible when it came to what he suffered from.
How did you tap into the mindset of a ten-year-old boy?
Again, I started writing this when my oldest was 11. I’d come home, and there’s always gaggles of boys playing Halo or just hanging out. I don’t have a large apartment. I could hear them. It wasn’t really hard for me to get into the boy-speak because I hear it all the time. I have two sons, so I’m surrounded by boys.
You told the story from the prospective of six different narrators—peers of Auggie and Auggie himself. Why do you think it was important to tell Auggie’s story from those different perspectives?
I found all the characters really interesting, and I wanted to explore all of them. I found myself especially curious about his sister, for instance, and what life might be like for her. I realized Auggie, in a sense, is a very sheltered character. He’s a little boy who’s very overprotected by his parents. He doesn’t always interpret things or see things. To be able to explore his story a little bit deeper, I needed to leave him and his perspective, see him from other people’s points of view and see how he impacts them. I’m not sure he understands the full extent to which he really did impact the people around him.