Vermont Reads, 'Wonder': Everyone Is Fighting A Battle

Each year, VPR partners with the Vermont Humanities Council to present Vermont Reads, a state-wide community reading program.

This year’s selection is Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. The book follows fifth-grader August Pullman as he enters middle school after previously being homeschooled by his Mom. Auggie, as his family calls him, was born with a genetic disorder that has left him with severe facial deformities.

Wonder was also featured in VPR's Dorothy's List series and won this year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher award.

In the introduction to the book, Auggie tells readers that despite what other people see, he’s just an ordinary 10-year-old kid.

An excerpt from 'Wonder'

“I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming on the playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.

If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here’s what I think: the reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

But I’m kind of used to how I look by now. I know how to pretend I don’t see the faces people make. We’ve all gotten pretty good at that sort of thing: Me, Mom and Dad, Via. Actually, I take that back: Via’s not so good at it. She can get really annoyed when people do something rude. Like, for instance, one time in the playground some older kids made some noises. I don’t even know what the noises were exactly because I didn’t hear them myself, but Via heard and she just started yelling at the kids. That’s the way she is. I’m not that way.

Via doesn’t see me as ordinary. She says she does, but if I were ordinary, she wouldn’t feel like she needs to protect me as much. And Mom and Dad don’t see me as ordinary, either. They see me as extraordinary. I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.

My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

The inspiration for the book

R.J. Palacio wrote Wonder after taking her kids to get ice cream one day, and seeing a little girl with craniofacial difference outside the shop. Palacio regretted what she did next: She decided to abruptly leave after her 3-year old son saw the girl and started to cry.

Author R.J. Palacio says "Wonder" was, in part, an act of atonement for a parenting mistake she herself made.
Credit Russell Gordon / Random House

“What I wish I had had the wherewithal to do was to stay and talk with the little girl and engage with her and show by my example that there was really nothing to fear that there was nothing wrong. That she was just an ordinary little girl,” she said. “But I missed that and I really, really, beat myself up over it afterwards. In fact, immediately, almost after we were out of view, I realized I should have just gone back. I just felt so badly about the way I’d handled it as a parent.”

Palacio said the book was sort of an act of atonement.

On being kind

Palacio has also been surprised by how many people have picked up on the idea of precepts. In the book, the student’s English teacher gives the students one thought a month, as sort of a code of conduct to live by. At the end of the year, he asks them to write their own. One of the precepts he exposes them to is: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

Palacio attributes the quote to Dr. Wayne Dyer, and says it’s one she’s always loved.

“I put in there because I think it’s so important, especially for middle schoolers who sometimes forget the importance of kindness. I didn’t want to hammer people over the head with this message, but I did think that it’s important to remind kids about the necessity to be kind. In a way, when they’re very little, as parents we’re all over them about being polite and saying please and thank you and all of those little virtues that make people wonderful human beings,” she explained. “But then in middle school a weird thing happens. We kind of step back a little bit and I think we prioritize other things, academics, do well in school, do your homework, all of these other things but something I think we forget to remind them to be kind to one another."

On difference and acceptance

One of the book’s  devastating moments uses the theme of Halloween, which is Auggie’s favorite time of year, because he gets to wear a mask and in doing so, no one can see his facial difference. He really starts to feel like he can just sort of be someone else and get out of himself. But at the same time, it leads to a devastating revelation that really shocks him and makes him terribly sad.

Palacio said she wanted to convey that even though Auggie looks very different than most children, he’s actually an ordinary kid in every other way.

"One of the universal experiences that we all go through ... especially in middle school ... [is] the betrayal of a trusted friend, and friendships breaking apart, or friendships getting tested, and friendships reuniting. That's part of growing up."

“I think one of the universal experiences that we all go through oftentimes, and especially in middle school and at that age is, we all experience at different degrees, or maybe sometimes people don’t, but most people will experience at some point or other the betrayal of a trusted friend, and friendships breaking apart, or friendships getting tested, and friendships reuniting. That’s part of growing up,” she said. “So one of the things about Auggie is that as he’s going to school for the first time, he’s also feeling a lot of those things for the first time, he’s experiencing a lot of the things that ordinary kids experience. And it’s painful. And it’s heartbreaking, but it’s also necessary for him to grow and to become less unique in the world in a way and more ordinary, which is what he always wanted. So I hate to say it’s character building for him, but it’s a moment of painful self-discovery and growing up for him.”

What is ordinary?

In the book, Auggie makes the point about feeling like an ordinary kid to himself, he knows that he’s just a kid with the same desires and things that any kid in middle school wants, but is it really possible for him ever to be an ordinary kid?

“That’s the real question isn’t it? I’ve spoken to a lot of parents of children who look like Auggie in real life, who were born with Craniofacial differences, whether it’s Treacher Collins or Goldenhar syndrome, or any other. And it is a lifelong thing. You could have lots of plastic surgery and you never quite look like everybody else and I think if you talk to them, they’ll say, 'You get really used to this face. This beautiful face is my child’s face and I wouldn’t change a thing.' And that’s what’s so touching about it,” Palacio said.

"[Facial deformity] is a lifelong thing. You could have lots of plastic surgery and you never quite look like everybody else. And I think if you talk to [parents], they'll say, 'You get really used to this face. This beautiful face is my child's face and I wouldn't change a thing.'"

“I think the kids themselves are quite used to the way they look and I think they feel rather ordinary. I had one dad say to me, there are times when my wife and I, we forget, we forget, that he looks different. He kind of starts looking very much like everyone else. And it’s only when we go outside and we see people staring at him that we’re reminded of how different he really is. So I think ordinary really is in the eye of the beholder, I think a kid probably gets used to the way he looks. And goes about his business, and goes about his life and has relationships and they have beautiful lives. I mean it doesn’t keep anybody down from what I’ve been able to tell. It’s certainly a challenge. It certainly makes life harder but I don’t think it makes life impossible by any stretch of the imagination.”

At the end of the book, Auggie has received some accolades at the end of his school year and he says, “I didn’t destroy a Death Star or anything like that but I did just get through the fifth grade. And that’s not easy, even if you’re not me.”

Everyone is fighting a battle

That simple statement may speak to why the book has become so popular because it doesn’t matter if you look different or not, it’s just tough being a kid, just getting through middle school.

Palacio said even though Auggie’s difficulties are the most obvious, every single character in the book has some cross to bear of their own. They have something in their lives that they wish they could change.

"Everyone is fighting some battle. And we might not know what it is, but it kind of makes you look at everybody with a bit more compassion."

“When I was researching the book of precepts there was one quote that I just loved so much, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. And I just loved that, I thought it’s so true. Everyone, everyone is fighting some battle. And we might not know what it is, but it kind of makes you look at everybody with a bit more compassion,” she said.   

R.J. Palacio’s new book, The Julian Chapter: a Wonder Story, is out this month.

Vermont Reads: 'Wonder' continues tomorrow with a look inside the minds of middle schoolers.