The boy of ‘Wonder’ will open your eyes

  • Emily Bazelon Slate
  • Sunday, October 21, 2012 2:38pm
  • Life

The book that has moved me most in the past year is “Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio. It’s the fictional story of August Pullman, a 10-year-old with a very different-looking face — the result of a chromosomal abnormality and an illness — and his journey from the nest of homeschooling to the wilds of middle school.

I listened to “Wonder” with my husband and my 9- and 12-year-old sons on a summer camping trip, and we spent hours mesmerized by the story and talking about the characters.

Auggie knows that his appearance shocks people; he’s confronted constantly by that reality. Still, he’s got enough confidence to try to make friends. And over the course of his fifth-grade year, he’s rewarded for the effort.

His perseverance came as an enormous relief to everyone in my family, because this is a children’s book, after all, and because the character had completely imprinted on our hearts.

My favorite thing about “Wonder,” though, is not that Auggie perseveres. It’s how unsparing the book is about the trouble he encounters along the way. For a time, the standard practice among the students at Auggie’s school is to wash their hands if they touch him accidentally.

He overhears a boy he considers his best friend saying he’d want to kill himself if he looked like Auggie. His sister is loyal, but doesn’t want him to visit her high school, where she’s recently enrolled and for the first time has the chance to be just herself, instead of the girl with the brother whose face repels people.

This is a book that makes you feel what it’s like to be Auggie, but also what it’s like to be the people around him.

R.J. Palacio is the pen name for first-time author Raquel Jaramillo, a book jacket designer in New York. She launched an anti-bullying campaign called Choose Kind in connection with her book, and is ramping it up for National Bullying Prevention Month, which is now.

Jaramillo said she got the idea for this book from a visit to an ice cream store with her two sons, when one had just finished fifth grade and the other was 3.

They saw a girl with a facial condition like Auggie’s, and the 3-year-old started to cry, Her older son looked horrified. She got up and whisked your kids away, for the sake of the girl’s feelings.

“I was really disappointed in my own response. It took me a whole book to figure out the answer, which has since been confirmed for me by parents of kids who look like Auggie,” she said.

“I wish I’d had the courage to turn around and look at the girl at the store. Even if my son kept crying, I should have just said, ‘I’m so sorry, my son’s not used to seeing people like you. What’s your name?’

“Just simply acknowledged her instead of running away. That would have set an example for my kids. But I didn’t know how to handle it, and I think most people don’t,” she said.

“We all know what it’s like to be an outsider and to have people talk about you behind your back. Who hasn’t experienced that in middle school? I watched my son struggle with former friends who really betrayed each other, and more than anything I was dumbfounded by the lack of involvement of some parents, Jaramillo said.

She said she had the other kids in the book react with shock and surprise because it’s a really human reaction. “We shouldn’t even feel bad about it. We’re conditioned to think of a human face as having certain proportions.”

One mom she talked to while writing the book, whose son has a cleft lip, told her told some girls on his bus said, “‘I don’t want you to sit next to me, you’re too ugly.’

“That broke my heart. We have to get over that initial impulse and act with kindness. That’s the cornerstone of Choose Kind: It’s not about just ‘being nice.’ There’s more effort required.”

Emily Bazelon writes about law, family and kids. Her book, “Sticks and Stones: The New World of Bullying,” will be published next spring.

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