Overcoming the World: R.J. Palacio and the Kindness in Wonder

R. J. Palacio spent years designing book jackets before publishing her debut novel, Wonder. Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2013, Wonder introduces August Pullman, a boy with severe craniofacial disfigurement, and chronicles his first year at mainstream school aged ten. The subject matter is unique in a genre filled with young cancer-sufferers, as is its appeal to a younger readership than the young-adult audience usually targeted by ‘issue’ books. Palacio has created an admirable protagonist in Auggie— his sameness rather than his difference appeals to every reader. If, as August advises, ‘Everyone deserves a standing ovation because we all overcometh the world,’ Palacio decisively earns hers with this offering.

 

Wonder has recently been published in the UK and Europe, and an adult version is due to be published this summer. Did you have any intention for Wonder to be a crossover novel?
I honestly had no idea it would become a crossover novel. My intention was to write a book that preteens and teens would enjoy, but I was careful never to talk down to that audience. I think when you’re writing truthfully about things, and approach a subject with honesty, people— regardless of age— enjoy reading it.

Wonder is told using six narrators. Do you think that children’s authors have an increasing freedom to experiment with form and narrative devices? What does the multiplicity of perspectives add to August’s story?
I read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when I was a teenager, and this use of multiple perspectives has always stayed with me. I didn’t think of using it for Wonder as a way of pushing the boundaries of what is done or expected in children’s books: I did it because I thought it was the best way to tell the story of Auggie Pullman. I wanted to tell the complete story of this one year in his life, and to do that I had to leave his head. I didn’t want him to be one of these precocious, omniscient child narrators who somehow know things they have no right to know. Auggie is a ten-year-old boy with limited experience of the world. He’s self-aware in that he knows how people react to him, but not self-aware enough to know the impact he has on people.

Mr Tushman highlights the fifth-graders as being ‘at the edge of childhood and everything that comes after’. Are contemporary ten-year-old’s really coming to the end of their childhood? How important is it for children of this age (and older) to learn about acceptance of difference?
It seems that kids have access to much more nowadays than ever before, and at a younger age, and it’s not so much that they’re coming to the end of their childhood but they’re beginning the transition into what comes directly after childhood, which varies from child to child. Before that age, when kids are nine and under, their world and their choices are still being defined by the adults in their lives. Teachers decide where they sit. Parents decide who they play with. But once they start hitting ten, eleven, twelve, they start deciding this stuff on their own.

They start trying to figure out who they want to be, who they want to hang out with. They start to become self-conscious, self-aware and more self-involved. And that can lead to hard choices and social situations that they don’t know how to navigate, which can lead to moments of cruelty. Sometimes the cruelty is born of a simple self-absorption— an almost unwitting lack of care for the feelings of others, but sometimes the cruelty goes beyond that, and becomes wilful. For instance, two friends who’ve been friends since they were in nappies suddenly find themselves in middle school, and one friend rejects the other. It’s not enough for the rejecting friend not to want to play with the former friend, but it sometimes feels as if he or she has to be unbelievably mean to the person just to really drive home the point. And parents are often complicit in this behaviour because they think it’s almost like a rite of passage. ‘Oh yes, kids that age are mean to each other. That’s just the way it is.’ But I don’t really accept that. I’ve known kids who haven’t gone through “a mean stage”. It doesn’t have to be that way. I wanted to show that in the book. There’s another way to be. You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you do have to be respectful and show kindness.

Almost without exception, the younger characters in Wonder behave badly towards August at some point. To what extent is their behaviour a direct reflection of their parents’ attitude towards August?
I think we set the tone for our children, we teach by example. It’s like that book, Children Learn What They Live. ‘If a child lives with antagonism, he learns to be hostile.’ My mother had that poem tacked up on the kitchen wall my entire childhood. Our kids’ lives are filled with teaching moments: they’re watching us.

There is an abundance of intertextuality present in Wonder, including song lyrics and references to television, film and plays as well as books. Do authors of books for young people act as a literary guide towards works that have influenced them?
Some critics take issue with the use of those kinds of references, as if it takes away from a book’s timelessness. I don’t think so at all. A lot of the books I’ve loved over the years reference things I don’t know anything about, but it doesn’t lessen the impact of the story. In fact, it makes the characters seem more real, more in keeping with their times. I wanted to write a book that kids would find entertaining and relatable, so I wasn’t at all self-conscious about putting things in there that they would get. And there were things I referenced that meant something to me and might not mean anything much to anyone else: a certain passage from a book, a scene from a movie, a song lyric. I wasn’t writing the book with critics in mind, truth be told: I was writing with kids in mind.

 

The English Times described Wonder as ‘destined to go the way of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and then some.’ Should Wonder promote awareness of and empathy for people with facial disfigurement in a similar manner that Haddon’s book did for awareness of Asperger’s Syndrome?
I hope so. So far, it seems to have raised awareness for people dealing with facial differences. I’ve heard from various craniofacial organisations around the world who are promoting the book tirelessly because they believe it’s the best way to promote empathy and kindness and acceptance towards their kids. One mom whose son has Goldenhar syndrome told me that her mission is to get as many people as possible to read Wonder because, she believes, it will benefit her son for the rest of his life. A whole generation of kids are growing up who have accepted Auggie Pullman as one of their own. She thinks Auggie’s paved the way for acceptance for her son and so many other kids like him.

The existence of Wonder as an e-book is promoted on the back cover of the physical book. Is electronic publishing a positive step forward or one that is potentially damaging to authors? Is it a greater concern for writers for younger readers?
Oh, now that’s a long and hard question to answer! You have to remember that I have worked in book publishing for twenty-five years on the other side of things: making books, editing books and designing books. I’ve lived for books my whole adult life. The e-book question is complicated. I think that e-books and print books can live in a world together, and one won’t replace another, just as TV sets didn’t replace movies. What happened was that people simply started creating content specific for TV’s, like sitcoms and mini-series, while movies became even more visually spectacular or intense or risqué. And I think that may well happen with e-books: some books will make sense to publish as an e-book, and some books will make sense to publish as a print book.

Nothing can replace the feeling of reading a print book, in my opinion, and nothing can replace the convenience of e-books. There are a lot of people on the world and they’ll sort out what format they prefer for what kind of book, and publishers will follow their will, and books will continue to exist. The only thing I’ll say is that you can’t get an author to sign a Kindle, but you can have an author sign a print book. When you give a book as a gift and inscribe that book, it carries a special meaning that will always last. My mother used to highlight her favourite books, write in the margins and underline passages that she loved. She died almost ten years ago, but I can read her books and feel as if I’m having a conversation with her through those underlined passages. It’s as if we can have this book club across the universe and all because she marked up the books she loved. You can’t do that with a Kindle.

Your website provides extra insights about the choices made in writing Wonder, and a Twitter hashtag is also provided. Given the ubiquitous nature of online content and social media in the cultural experiences of a young readership, how essential is it for an author to engage with their readers online? Is there an argument that the complete experience should be found within the covers of the book?
That’s an interesting argument, and I would almost be inclined to agree because I’ve spent so much time responding to emails and tweets from readers and trying to keep up (with little success) with my blog. Some authors are very good at it, some less so. To me there’s little distinction between taking the time to answer a ten-year-old’s questions as it does to take the time to answer your questions, in a way. Although this interview may lead to more interest in my book, and more sales, which is a good thing, taking the time to answer a child’s questions is just as valuable. If a child is interested enough in my book to take the time to write, who am I not to be moved? If I don’t respond to each and every one, it’s not for lack of want but lack of time. So while I wish I could direct them to find all their answers within the covers of my book, the fact that they’re inspired to know more is too beautiful a thing to discount.

 

Louise Conlon is a primary-school teacher based in Dublin. She completed an MA in Children’s Literature in St Patrick’s College in 2009, with a thesis on the impact of crossover fiction on contemporary YA fiction.