This week we’ve been exploring themes from the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. The novel is this year’s pick for the Vermont Humanities Council’s state-wide reading program, Vermont Reads.
In the book, the protagonist August Pullman is facing the daunting prospect of starting fifth grade after being homeschooled. But his challenges are amplified, because he looks very different from everyone else.
Excerpt: If It's Okay For Me To Ask
And even talking about being different is hard, as we see in this excerpt from the book, in which Auggie’s friend Summer works up the courage to ask Auggie about his appearance:
“Hey, Auggie, can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah,” he said, like he knew exactly what I wanted to ask.
I hesitated. I’ve been wanting to ask him this for a while but I’ve always lost the guts to ask.
“What?” he said. “You want to know what’s wrong with my face?”
“Yeah, I guess. If it’s okay for me to ask.”
He shrugged. I was so relieved that he didn’t seem mad or sad.
“Yeah, it’s not big deal,” he said casually. “The main thing I have is this thing called man-di-bu-lo-facial dys-os-tis – which took me forever to learn how to pronounce, by the way. But I also have this other syndrome thing that I can’t even pronounce. And these things kind of just morphed together into one big super-thing, which is so rare they don’t even have a name for it. I mean, I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m actually considered something of a medical wonder you know.”
A Wonder Family
Being close to someone who looks different presents its own challenges. Camel’s Hump Middle School student Amelia Sanborn wrote this essay for the Young Writer’s Project about what it’s like to live in a family like the one in Wonder:
I am a real life Via (like in the book, Wonder). My sister, Olivia, was born with a craniofacial syndrome similar to Auggie’s in Wonder. Just like Auggie, my sister also has hearing aids. Many of the challenges Auggie faces, she also faces. The main challenge is people not knowing the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
I’ve seen the difference between when someone is at our house having a playdate with her, and at school. At the playdate, they’re kind of forced to be nice. They tolerate her, but they don’t act like they want to be her friend. She also has some friends that do accept her. But it doesn’t feel good to see people that only care when an adult is around, just like Julian in Wonder.
Acceptance can be a hard thing. Even as a sister of someone with differences, I sometimes get caught staring at other people who look different because I’m curious. That’s like what happened with Auggie and Summer. She was curious, but she got to know and accept him.
Everybody has differences. Yes, you are different, just in your own way. You have your strengths, but you also have your weaknesses. It’s the same with people who look or act different. Summer does a good job of accepting Auggie. She sits with him at lunch, she talks to him, she plays with him at recess; she even did the science fair with him. Also in Wonder, Jack Will does a good job of showing that it can be hard to include someone, and it’s really easy to give in to peer pressure, but what you say can really hurt someone. The world needs more Summers, and fewer Julians.
Olivia Sanborn, Amelia’s sister, has Pfeiffer Syndrome, which causes the sutures of the head to be fused at birth. At just 11 years old, she’s had multiple surgeries to help her survive. She also has hearing loss. She’s now at Camel’s Hump Middle School.
“In elementary school it was pretty easy because people were nice to me and always there for me, but this year has been sort of rough, but not too rough. I have friends, but not as many as I did in elementary school,” she said.
Sanborn has developed her own ways for dealing with kids who are mean or say mean things to her.
“I would ignore them. Or like if they say my eyes look weird, or I’m weird, I would say, thanks that means a lot,” she said. “They just ignore that and just walk away.”
Laurel Sanborn, Olivia’s mother, said that’s a new strategy.
“When Olivia was younger, we would encourage her to say hello to people, and that would often break the ice, they would either say hello or turn the other way. And this is just pretty recently that we’ve been talking about this, that if someone says, 'Your eyes look funny,' to say, 'I’m glad you noticed my eyes,' or something like that. To kind of put it back on them.”
Laurel Sanborn said she tries to help her daughter be prepared, but she also has to prepare herself.
“When she was little, it was really hard, she hadn’t had a lot of the surgeries that make her look a lot more, I guess you would say typical at this point,” Sanborn said. “As Olivia described it’s been pretty easy up until this year, because everybody invites everybody to birthday parties, and in elementary school there’s just kind of a different mentality about that. But now that she’s in middle school, I think it’s really hard.”
Laurel says they’ve made connections with other families who have children with Pfeiffer Syndrome, and it helps to have a network of people who know what the family has been through, and for Olivia to meet kids like her.
“We feel grateful that Olivia, as she grows up has the support of others, and that with the book Wonder, a lot of other people are starting to get interested and to get to know Olivia as a person. The one thing we’ve always wanted for Olivia is that we don’t want her to be a victim, we want her to be who she is. And we’ve treated her just as normal as we do our other daughter and that’s our hope and expectation for everyone.”
Olivia says there’s one thing she wants people to understand about her. “I may look a little different, but I’m still a normal person. I’m still a human.”
Sam Drazin also identifies with the book Wonder. He was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, and describing his own features is like reading about Auggie Pullman.
“I was born with underdeveloped ears and a small receded jaw line, my eyes are kind of slanting downward, and it’s not super obvious at first glance. And so growing up, I’ve had a series of surgeries to change some of those things,” Drazin said.
Drazin agrees with Olivia Sanborn, that things get harder when you’re in middle school.
“I feel like in elementary school, kids see differences, but it doesn’t impact their reactions to someone or impact their decisions about how they interact with someone. But going around sixth or seventh grade, I noticed that things started to change with my peer groups. That I had less friends,” Sam said. “That’s the age in which kids are more egocentric. It’s all about them. They worry more about who they are friends with, how their friends look, what clothes their friends are wearing. So middle and high school was much harder for me.”
Drazin says that living in a small town like Bradford, with fewer people he gets to know quickly, actually helps. And as an adult, he doesn’t feel as conspicuous as he did when he was young.
“As I’ve grown up I’ve become more confident. And I think the more confident that you are, people look past any difference that you might have and just see you because you’re coming in with confidence in yourself,” Drazin said.
Drazin is a third grade teacher at Bradford Elementary school. When he gets a new class of students he waits until at least a week has gone by to tell them about himself.
“I want them to start to build trust we me and understand who I am and get to know me a little bit before I share the news with them,” Drazin said. “I think it’s really important that the more honest that we are with kids the better. In our society today it seems like we have this kind of 'don’t talk about it' kind of philosophy and you see someone who’s different than you and your parents say, 'Don’t point, don’t talk about it, just keep on walking.' I really believe kids are naturally curious and they’ll respect you more if you’re honest with them.”
Drazin waits to share information with them for a couple of days because he wants them to feel comfortable with him and in his classroom and start to build that classroom community.
“When I do sit them down and talk about it, they’re very open and respectful and it never comes up again. And I have heard from other teachers that when my students are on the playground, if other students come up to them and say, 'What’s wrong with Mr. Drazin’s ears?' or, 'What’s in Mr. Drazin’s hair?' that they are kind of just very blunt about it. They just say, 'That’s the way he was born, and everyone goes off happy and continues playing.”
Drazin has started a non-profit called Changing Perspectives to talk about how schools deal with disability, and in his case, it's hearing loss. He uses the book Wonder in those discussions.
“I’ve been now to 20 schools and libraries throughout the state, I’ve presented to a little over 1,500 people. And I am blown away every time by some of the precepts that they come up with. They are just so heartfelt and meaningful and deep. And then after they share their precepts I kind of leave my presentation, with my challenge for them is to live their life by that precept. To live their life following that one sentence rule about how you should treat other people,” Drazin said.
Drazin’s favorite precept from the book is Auggie’s: “Everyone is the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world.”
“What I think is so remarkable about this book and one of the reasons that it has spread so quickly is that everyone can make a connection to it,” Drazin said. “You know, whether you’re born with a facial difference or not, we all have challenges. Some of our challenges are more obvious than others. But instead of kind of reacting in negative ways to people’s challenges, how can we react in positive ways to people’s challenges?”
Vermont Reads: 'Wonder' was produced by Betty Smith and Melody Bodette. Our technical engineer was John Billingsley. Special thanks Liam Kinney and Sophia St. John-Lockridge for reading the excerpts.