Raquel Jaramillo's debut novel, Wonder, written under the pen name R.J. Palacio, was born out of a rather embarrassing incident. The author was out with her two sons, sitting in front of an ice cream store. Her oldest had just finished fifth grade, and her youngest was still in a stroller. They spotted a girl whose face had been deformed by a medical condition.
"It was just one of those terrible moments when my kids didn't react the way I would've wanted them to react," Jaramillo tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "In order to spare this little girl's feelings, I ended up just kind of running away from the scene."
She felt terrible about the incident, and replayed it over and over in her mind. That night, she began writing a story about a fifth-grade boy nicknamed Auggie who struggles to feel ordinary with everyone constantly staring at him.
"I won't describe what I look like," Auggie narrates in the first chapter. "Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."
Auggie tends to get sick and often needs to undergo surgeries, so his parents home-schooled him until the fifth grade. When he leaves home to enter middle school, he encounters students and teachers who treat him with varying degrees of kindness and disgust.
Jaramillo says she wanted young readers to see things through Auggie's eyes, to understand how people with physical deformities experience the world.
"What he looks like, in a sense, is very incidental to him," says the author. "He really doesn't dwell on that very much. What he dwells on is the reaction that people have to him. Because all he wants is to be an ordinary kid. But he really can't, because he'll always have people staring at him and reacting to him in a certain way."
Jaramillo didn't want to reduce the other kids in Wonder to mere bullies. That would have made them too easy to villainize. Instead, Auggie's tormenters remind him in painfully subtle ways that he is being looked at. One character mentions a Star Wars character with a burned face.
"Middle school is a tough time," says Jaramillo. "I don't know what it is about the middle school experience that turns kids into The Lord of the Flies, but it just does seem to be that way."
However, Jaramillo says she found that expressions of kindness were more interesting to write about than acts of meanness. "Maybe because the expectation is that kids will be mean to one another, whenever one kid shows any kind of kindness or is noble, it almost takes on an extraordinary act of courage," says Jaramillo. "You're really rooting for the kids who stand up for Auggie. Ultimately, it's a feel-good book because it is a meditation on kindness and the impact of kindness."
Throughout Wonder, one of Auggie's teachers writes what he calls "precepts" — or fundamental rules — on the blackboard. His first lesson: Given a choice between being right and being kind, choose to be kind.
"I think it's that choice that's so important," says Jaramillo. "That becomes the subtext of the entire book. It's really not so much about bullying at all, in fact. It's really about how ... Auggie comes into their lives and they all become better for it. And they all rise to the occasion and become protective of him. He becomes part of their community."
Writing Wonder made Jaramillo reflect on her own junior high school experience. "Could I have been nicer?" she wonders. "Was I nice? I think somewhere in between nice and not nice is where many people are. It's funny because a lot of people have told me that they identify with the book not because they have experienced bullying, but because when they were younger they remember that there were times when they could've been nicer."
Many readers have told Jaramillo that they remember acts of kindness from their middle school days much more vividly than acts of bullying.
"They'll remember the girl that was really nice to them and sat with them," she says. "In the end, I started thinking that ultimately it is those moments of ... kindness that people ultimately remember more than the other stuff."
Now, when Jaramillo sees her children's classmates, she thinks about how she treated others at their age.
"It's tough to go back sometimes and think about who you were," she says. "I certainly was not a mean girl at all. I think was a very, very nice girl, but I think I could've been nicer at times, too."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A new children's novel begins in the voice of a boy who says: I know I'm not an ordinary 10-year-old kid. It emerges that the boy was born with a deformed face. Although he says: I won't describe what I look like, whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
August Pullman, Auggie to his family, is the central character in the novel "Wonder." We meet him after years of operations and homeschooling when he's finally going away to school for the first time.
The author writes under the pen name, R.J. Palacio. Friends know her as Raquel Jaramillo. And she says the novel grew out of a searing moment with her own children.
RAQUEL JARAMILLO: It actually came out of a chance encounter I had with her a little girl who looks very much like Auggie looks in the book. I was with my two children, and this was years ago now. And I was sitting in front of an ice cream store, and my younger son who was about three at the time was in the stroller facing. And it was just one of those terrible moments when my kids didn't react the way I would have wanted them to react.
And in order to spare this little girl's feelings, I ended up, you know, just kind of running away from the scene. And I kept on thinking about this incident and it kept on replaying in my mind. I honestly felt so badly about it, and I started writing the book that very night.
INSKEEP: So you create a school full of kids and teachers who have to deal with this very circumstance, when a boy nicknamed Auggie comes into the school. And when you eventually have his face described by one of the characters in the book, I guess one way to put it would just be like a normal face seen in the fun house mirror, nothing is where it should be. That's the kind of these were talking about here.
JARAMILLO: Pretty much, yeah. He was born with a facial deformity. There are many syndromes that cause different types of facial disfigurements. And in the book, he has a combination of a couple of different syndromes, which makes him something of a medical wonder.
INSKEEP: And one of the powerful things about this book is that you begin from the perspective of Auggie himself.
JARAMILLO: Well, I thought it was important to have a spin - this is primarily written for children. And I wanted them to be able to walk in Auggie's shoes, and meet him and see him, and feel through his eyes and his heart what it's like. And then what he looks like, in a sense, is very incidental to him. He really doesn't dwell on that very much.
What he dwells on is the reaction that people have to him, because all he wants is to be an ordinary kid. But he really can't because he'll always have people staring at him and reacting to him in a certain way. Then by the time we get to the point in the book where he is described, I think the reader just feels so protective of him that you don't really care anymore what he looks like, and you just want to help him. You just want to be friends with him.
INSKEEP: You know, if the other kids were just out-and-out awful to Auggie, it would almost be easier for the character to deal with. But kids are kind of subtle about it in ways that make it more excruciating. You even have one of the characters start mentioning a "Star Wars" character who has a burned face. I mean, there are all these little things that are done in class to make sure that he is reminded that people are looking at him.
JARAMILLO: Yeah. And unfortunately, you know, middle school is a tough time. And I don't know what it is about the middle school experience that turns kids into the "Lord of the Flies" kind of, but it just does to be that way. And more than that, what's really touching to me about ultimately what happens in the book is the extraordinary acts of kindness that end up happening, from those very kids who start out may be feeling one way.
Maybe because the expectation is that kids will be mean to one another. Whenever one kid shows any kind of kindness or is noble, it almost takes on an extraordinary act of courage. It feels, you know, you're really rooting for the kids who stand up for Auggie, in a way. And ultimately it's a feel-good book because it is a meditation on kindness and the impact of kindness.
INSKEEP: Now, you just use that word kind. You put a teacher in the book who keeps putting what he calls precepts, fundamental rules, up on the blackboard. And the first one was the most striking. And I'm paraphrasing here, but I believe he writes on the board: Given a choice between being right and being kind, choose to be kind.
JARAMILLO: Yeah, I love that.
INSKEEP: But it's a surprising choice to make because you would think they're the same thing.
JARAMILLO: Exactly. I think it's that choice that's so important. And I think that that becomes the subtext of the entire book. It's really not so much about bullying at all, in fact. It's really about how these kids just are - how Auggie comes into their lives and they all become better for it. And they all rise to the occasion.
INSKEEP: Now, one of your kids is going through middle school when you are writing this, correct?
INSKEEP: It would be tempting to ask if his experience informed what you are doing. But I almost want to ask that the other way around. Did the act of writing this story start to cause you to think about your own son's experiences in different ways?
JARAMILLO: I think so. And I think it also caused me to go back into my childhood as well and wonder who I was. I think, not so much my son's experiences, but also relating to parents of my son's friends with whom, you know, we've all known each other for years. And seeing how in the fifth grade when old friends take divergent paths and friendships get broken, and kids that she knew since kindergarten and had many multiple sleepovers with, suddenly, you know, there's that split that happens as personalities are formed and changed and kids take on different personas.
And they did a lot of thinking about parental roles and what we do. Do we interfere too much? Do we not interfere? What the expectations are. I have a lot of friends who very much had the attitude, even if they knew that their kids weren't being very nice, it was more, you know, well, let the kids work it out for themselves. What I always thought about that is that there's usually some kid that's on the losing side of that equation. So it wasn't so much about my son's experiences or even mine. It was more about the social experience in general.
INSKEEP: That does underline how vividly we remember these times that get to be rather distant, as we grow older.
JARAMILLO: They do. And then they can come back at the drop of a hat. You know, you see a little girl in your son's school that reminds you of who you used to be. And you're like, oh, my goodness - or vice versa. You kind of realize that there are kids that you wished you'd gotten to know better, who were terrifically nice and maybe you didn't give them too much time.
It's tough to go back sometimes and think about who you were. I mean, I certainly was not a mean girl at all. And I pretty much, I think, was a very, very nice girl. But I think I could've been nicer at times, too.
INSKEEP: Well, Raquel Jaramillo, thanks very much for taking the time.
JARAMILLO: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
INSKEEP: Her pen name is R.J. Palacio and her new novel is "Wonder." And Young readers can discover more titles by joining NPR's Backseat Book Club. Each month, our program ALL THINGS CONSIDERED picks a book and takes listeners' questions for the author. This month's election is at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.