Dorothy's List: 'Wonder' Teaches Kindness, Acceptance And Friendship

Jan 6, 2014

Take a look around Liz Greenberg's fifth and sixth grade classroom at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro and some catchy student-designed bumper stickers just might grab your attention. Each bumper sticker has a saying – a precept. Guiding words, if you will. And if you ask, the students will tell you how the precepts relate to their own lives and how they connect to R.J. Palacio's novel Wonder.

Here are some examples:

It’s not enough to be friendly, you have to be a friend.

If you think being kind is enough, try harder.

If you run away from life, nothing will get better.

Precepts play a prominent role in Wonder. And these Starksboro students are curious why the author chose to use them in her book. We put this and the students' other questions to R.J. Palacio.

Eric McKean: Where did the idea for precepts come from?

R.J. Palacio: I used to collect precepts when I was about 14, 15 years old. I had a scrapbook and I have absolutely no idea what compelled me to start this scrapbook. But I was a huge reader and whenever I would find a phrase from a book or something that just kind of hit me, for whatever reason. Something that just made me feel like it was worth remembering, I would write it down in this scrapbook. I just thought it would be a great way, if I were a teacher ... of introducing sort of the unit of essay writing, and also talking about larger themes and essential virtues … Kind of like elevating the conversation a little bit about what we expect of kids, in terms of old-fashioned virtues like kindness and tolerance, and just notions like that, that I’m not sure are stressed as much anymore when kids get older.

Abby Iliff: Why did you decide to have different parts of the book told from different characters’ perspectives?

R.J. Palacio: Well, in order to tell Auggie’s story completely, I realized that I had to leave Auggie’s head a little bit. I mean, Auggie’s a great kid. He’s really smart and intuitive and he knows a lot about the impact he has on people, in terms of how they react to him. But I don’t think he’s really aware of how much of an impact he has on people indirectly. And so in order to be able to tell his story, I realized that I would have to tell it from the points of view of the very people he does impact. And so I expanded the narration to include other people’s points of view, people that he encounters. And this way we can get a completely rounded view of who Auggie Pullman is and what he has to say.

Charlotte Doyle: Why didn’t you have Julian narrate a section and give his side of the story?

R.J. Palacio: Oh, that’s a great question and it’s something I thought long and hard about. And ultimately I decided not to give Julian a voice because it felt like giving a bully a pulpit, in a way. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to have him have a platform where he could try to rationalize or justify his meanness. Because there really is no rationale and there is no justification for the way he treats Auggie. But we might hear from him in some other way, at some point, in the future.

Emily LaRock: What gave you the idea to write about a kid with facial deformities? Did you get it from a real live person?

R.J. Palacio: I was inspired to write the book by an encounter I had with a little girl who was probably about 6 or 7 [years old]. And she looked very much the way I describe Auggie as looking in the book. And I was with my two young sons, and my younger son, who was about 3 years old at the time, he was very afraid. And he started to cry. And at the time I didn’t know what to do, and I kind of panicked. And I thought the answer, the solution, was to leave the scene as quickly as possible. But afterwards I felt terribly because I realized that I had actually missed this wonderful opportunity to use this situation as a teaching moment for my children, to have shown them that there was nothing to be afraid of. And that got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to have to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back. So I started writing Wonder that very night.

Hope Leavitt: Is the gene that Auggie has real? Did you have to research it to be able to write about it?

R.J. Palacio: I did research it. And he has a combination of two different syndromes. One of them is real. It’s the Treacher Collins syndrome and I’m pretty sure that the girl that I saw probably had Treacher Collins. Then, in the book, Auggie actually has another syndrome, which is kind of a mystery syndrome that just kind of makes everything worse for him. And I did that as a way of just making him truly unique in the world.

Isabella Gaffney: Why wasn’t there a picture of Auggie somewhere on the cover of the book?

R.J. Palacio: I knew that this book would definitely pose a challenge because it’s a conundrum. On the one hand, a lot of books for children will show very detailed paintings of what the main characters look like, or illustrations or drawings or even a photograph. On the other hand, if we had done that with Wonder, you know we didn’t want to risk alienating some readers who might not get past the cover in order to read the book. And the truth is, a lot of times people need to read the entire book to be able to really get past what Auggie looks like. So, you know, I think it was a wonderful choice on the part of the designer and the art director to decide to use a very iconic but abstract representation of what Auggie would look like.

Addy Harris: What was the moral of the story that you were trying to get out to people?

R.J. Palacio: I was going for just a reminder that we should just be kind to one another. And that’s it. And it’s very simple. But it’s the notion that if everyone were just a little kinder than necessary, the world really would be a better place.

Middle school is not always a kind place, as the character Auggie experienced first hand. But by the end of the school year, he’s learned a lot about how to negotiate that tough environment. And many of his classmates learned to live the precept, “It’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend.”

Many other Vermont students – and adults – will have the opportunity to read Wonder this year. The book was recently named the Vermont Humanities Council's 2014 Vermont Reads selection. Click here to learn more about Wonder and take the Choose Kind pledge.

Dorothy's List, VPR's book club for kids, is sponsored by the VPR Journalism Fund.