Author Features / Features / Fiction

R.J. Palacio: Words of Wonder

by Sangeeta Mehta

1.
If there was ever a person who understood what it was like to be different, it was Joseph Merrick. The “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant” curiosity in Victorian sideshows, he was also exhibited in the back of an empty shop on London’s Whitechapel Road. It was there that Merrick met Frederick Treves, the doctor who would take him under his wing. Noting the abnormalities in his skull and the impediments in his speech, Treves initially deemed Merrick an imbecile.

As it turned out, Merrick was not intellectually impaired; instead, he was “highly intelligent,” possessing an “acute sensibility” and a “romantic imagination,” Treves wrote in The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. Merrick was also painfully aware of how different he was from other people. Among other daily hurdles, he was forced to sleep sitting up due to the heavy weight of his neck, and repeatedly told Treves that he wished he could sleep lying down. In fact, he was lying down when he passed away, at the age of 27. Although the official cause of Merrick’s death was asphyxia, Treves believed that Merrick died from a neck injury, caused by “the desire that had dominated his life—the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people.’”

Like Merrick, August (Auggie) Pullman, the main character in R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, is far from being intellectually debilitated. Home-schooled until the age of 10, he scores well enough on an entrance exam to be admitted to a competitive middle school. Auggie does all the typical things boys his age do; he feels ordinary, he explains in the opening chapter of the book. The reaction to his story, however, is anything but.

Published in February 2012, Wonder was named a “Best Children’s Book of the Year” by Kirkus Reviews and Emily Bazelon of Slate, and a “Best of Book of the Year” by Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. A #1 New York Times middle grade bestseller for nearly a year, it has spawned a national movement called “Choose Kind.” As of early October 2013, Wonder has sold more than one million copies, a milestone that happened to coincide with Auggie’s birthday on October 10 and National Bullying Prevention Month. The “wonder of Wonder” has changed R.J. Palacio’s life, but not for the first time.

2.
Author R.J. Palacio, whose real name is Raquel Jaramillo, has always worn different hats. After working in the art departments at Scribner and St. Martins, she moved to Henry Holt, where she was named creative director in 1990. Her design credits include book covers for authors such as Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie, and Louise Erdrich. In 2006, her creative interests leaning toward children’s books (she had already published several board books for babies, as well as a photography/picture book), she accepted a position at Workman Publishing as the director of its children’s division; she would later be promoted to editorial director and creative director of the division, as well as acting creative director for the overall Workman imprint.

A few weeks after arriving at Workman, in August 2006, Palacio met Rufus Butler Seder at a gift fair. Palacio thought that his trademarked “Scanimation” technology, which gave the illusion of movement, would be ideal for a children’s book. Her first acquisition for Workman, Seder’s Gallop, became the first of several New York Times bestselling picture books for them both. Palacio continued to come up with book ideas, some of which she commissioned writers to see through, others which she wrote and designed herself. When Bobo Glove, a puppet show of sorts, was published, her bio read, “Raquel Jaramillo is a designer, inventor, writer, and children’s editor.”

It sounds like a rather enterprising bio, but remarkably, it’s apt. While it isn’t uncommon for book editors to becomes writers, how does a designer trained in the visual arts make the transition to acquiring and editing? How does someone who has cut her teeth on adult books instinctively know what will sell in the children’s market? Straddle the worlds of adult and children’s literature?

The daughter of Colombian immigrants, Palacio grew up in a working class neighborhood of Queens in a house filled with books. Her mother, Nelly Palacio, whose name Palacio took as her pen name, was an especially strong influence. Palacio poignantly describes on her blog the aftermath of her mother’s death, how she and her brother planted a tree in her honor, where they scattered her ashes; how she kept her mother’s clothes for a while, eventually giving some to her nieces and the rest to charity; how she tried to save other mementos:

“But really, the only thing that truly remains of hers—that she herself considered precious—are her books. Shelves of books. Old books. Recent books. Her tattered copies of The Little Prince and her beloved Oscar WildeThe Little World of Don CamiloLas Uvas de La Ira, which, in case you don’t know Spanish, is The Grapes of WrathThe Good Earth. Her worn copy of Mientras agonizo [As I Lay Dying], which for all I know, could be the same copy García Marquez had pressed into her hands all those years ago.”

It was Nelly who had always told Palacio that she would be a writer. Was it the books she had thrust into her daughter’s hands that influenced Palacio to realize her writing talents and to pen a children’s book that would speak as effectively to adults? In the UK, an adult edition of Wonder followed the young readers’ edition. Other titles that have been deemed worthy of separate adult and children’s editions include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Book Thief, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

4.
The story of how Palacio came to write Wonder is well known in the children’s book publishing community: It was fall of 2007, and she was taking her sons out for ice cream when they came across a little girl with a craniofacial difference. When her younger son looked up and saw her, “he reacted exactly the way you might think a three-year old would react when seeing something that scared him: he started to cry—pretty loudly, too.” Palacio explains how she and her children left the scene in a hurry to avoid hurting the girl’s feelings, but not before hearing the girl’s mother calmly and gently tell her that it was time to go. Palacio couldn’t stop thinking about the incident, wondering how many times the girl’s family faced reactions like hers. The song “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant happened to come on the radio later that day, and the lyrics resonated with Palacio. She started writing her novel that night.

And it was at night—specifically in the middle of the night—that she would continue to write. She and her husband, who also works in publishing, would put their children to bed and go to sleep themselves, then Palacio would rise around midnight, when it was quiet and “surprisingly easy to write.” In the mornings she would return to the Workman office to play her dual role as a creative director and editor, continuing this routine for a year and a half. When she was ready to begin her agent search, she was aware of how tough it was to land an agent, much less a book deal. She achieved both: Wonder sold in the summer of 2010 to Knopf at auction, when Palacio was in her mid-40s.

5.
Perhaps inspired by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, one of her all-time favorite books, Palacio wrote her novel from various points of view. It begins, ends, and is interspersed with Auggie’s, but it also includes that of his classmates Summer and Jack, his older sister Via, Via’s boyfriend Justin, and Via’s childhood friend Miranda. Palacio intentionally avoided delving into the mind of Julian, Auggie’s nemesis, because she didn’t want to give a bully a platform. She also left out Auggie’s parents’ point of view so as to tell the story through the filter of young characters.

This myriad of Palacio’s voices makes for a fascinating look at how Auggie is perceived. Like Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in The Invisible Man, how people see—or don’t see—him is precisely what forms his social identity. Summer admits that “August’s face takes some getting used to.” Similarly, Jack says, “The first couple of times I was like, whoa, I’m never going to get used to this.” But they both do, quickly looking past his physical appearance to realize how much they like Auggie as a person. Their friendship with Auggie might seem too easy, as though it were a forced necessity. Certain choices in the book do seem dubious, such as the suggestion Via’s and Justin’s high school would consider staging the play “The Elephant Man” (a play usually assigned in college-level sociology classes). But Palacio’s knowledge of middle school culture—the cruelty, the insecurity, as well as the altruism—makes the voices wholly believable.

More intriguing than how others view Auggie is how he views himself. Packed with references to pop culture and laugh-out-loud jokes, the sections told from his point of view are entertaining and relatable. They are also deeply layered: Perhaps because he has lost some of his hearing, Auggie learns to rely on another sense, his intuition, to determine when people act kindly toward him but don’t mean it, when they wear a “shiny smile, and when they are genuine. Self-assured enough to poke fun at himself once in a while, but highly self-aware, Auggie’s voice is pitch perfect.

6.
Bullying has always been a popular theme in young people’s literature. Published in 1974, Blubber by Judy Blume features a protagonist who initially joins her class president in bullying an overweight girl, but loses her friends when she dares to challenge the president’s authority. In Speak (1999), Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of a girl who is ostracized by her peers after calling the police at a party; she’s unable to verbalize that the reason she made the call was because she was raped. Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) describes the thirteen reasons a girl commits suicide via cassette tapes she left behind. But perhaps the quintessential young people’s novel that addresses bullying is The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, which depicts the consequences faced by a boy, Jerry, who refuses to conform to his school’s corrupt culture. Due in part to its stark realism, it remains a perennial bestseller nearly 30 years after it was first published. Perhaps for these same reasons, it also consistently tops the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged and banned young adult books.

Like Jerry, Auggie becomes an outcast at his school, not because of his own defiance, but rather that of his supporters. Provoked by Julian’s treatment of “the freak,” Jack punches Julian, and so “The War” begins. Lines are drawn and sides are taken. Following the natural social order of middle school, most students, too frightened to challenge the bully, join him. They help Julian carry out tacit threats toward the outcast, even though they are old enough to realize this is wrong. Just as Jerry has “The Goober” on his side, Auggie and Jack have the two Maxes, AKA “the nerds,” along with a friend named Reid, but they are basically on their own. Needing to protect their reputations and themselves, the “neutrals” keep their distance.

Unlike Jerry, who undergoes a violent beating for standing his ground, Auggie emerges from the war bruised but with a red badge of courage of sorts. The punches he receives in the end are knuckle punches from the jocks in the hallways. “It was like I was one of them.” Is the aftermath of the incident a bit too positive to be believable? Too pat for the kids who know what bullies are really like? Maybe for some; or maybe it’s true that, as Auggie’s mother tells him, “There are always going to be jerks in the world . . . [but] there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other.” One of the biggest criticisms of Wonder is that the adult characters are idealized, especially Auggie’s parents. The Ivy League-educated Isabel and Nate are not only unusually sensitive to their son’s predicament, but “Mom is beautiful, by the way. And Dad is handsome. In case you were wondering.” In a way, they are idealized, but they are also a welcome change from the absentee or abusive parents found in many contemporary books for young readers.

Teachers, too, are positively portrayed in Wonder. In some of the above-mentioned novels, teachers condone the bullies’ behavior or, at best, ignore it. In Wonder, English teacher Mr. Browne comes up with a new “precept” every month. This idea could have easily come across as pedantic. Instead, it resonates with the characters and beyond: Over 17,500 people have signed the “Choose Kind” pledge inspired by Mr. Browne’s first precept: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” Maybe in real life, middle school kids are too old to believe everything their mothers tell them, but they’re still young enough to listen to the teachers they respect, and to the stories that speak to them.

7.
On September 30, the New York Times published an article about a survey conducted by the market research firm Mintel, which found that, “Among 12- to 17-year-olds, 47 percent of girls and 34 percent of boys report having been bullied either face-to-face or online.” A few days later, on October 3, the Times published an article about a study conducted by the journal Science, about the effects of reading literary fiction. “Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position—lives that could be more difficult, more complex . . . can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives,” it found. Time Magazine ran a similar article over the summer with the headline, “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” “‘Deep reading’ is vigorous exercise from the brain and increases our real-life capacity for empathy,” the article explained.

Of course, there isn’t always a correlation between reading and kindness—Jack, after all, is not a big reader. And there are plenty of people who do read voraciously but lack empathy. But is it mere coincidence that one of the most nuanced characters in Wonder, Via—who is also bullied in that she is iced out by her peers—is reading War and Peace? That Palacio read the same book when she was Via’s age, along with so many other great works of literary fiction? That one of the results of a childhood spent reading resulted in Wonder? One thing is clear: at a time when the disturbing consequences of bullying are finally coming to light, it couldn’t have been published at a better time.

8.
Last year, R.J. Palacio was a nominee for Person of the Year by Time for Kids, alongside the Obamas, Michael Phelps, and Malala Yousafzai, for “creating a fictional character that’s made a real impact on kids around the country.” Palacio didn’t win, but the impact of Wonder is undeniable. Aside from receiving popular and critical acclaim, the book has been optioned by Lionsgate.

The big question on the minds of fans: if Wonder is made into a film, will they show Auggie’s face? Will it look worse, as he warns, than we imagine? In the early 80s, when David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” was nominated for eight Academy awards, people were outraged that the Academy did not honor the work of Christopher Tucker. The prosthetics he created and the make-up he applied to John Hurt, the actor who portrayed Merrick, were considered revolutionary for its time. To placate Tucker’s fans, the Academy created the Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling the following year.

Anyone who has read Wonder, however, will not care what awards its movie version wins or launches, as long as the actors—like Auggie—are given a standing ovation in the end.

Bloom Post End

A former acquiring editor at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, Sangeeta Mehta is a freelance book editor in New York City, focusing on the middle grade, young adult, and contemporary women’s fiction markets. Her website is www.mehtabookeditingnewyork.com

Homepage photo credit: ˇBerd via photopin cc

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