The Chance Encounter That Inspired Wonder

If you were a middle-schooler today, you almost certainly would read Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a tear-jerker of a book about a ten-year-old boy born with severe facial differences starting his first year of public school, in your English class. Wonder is a veritable middle-grade fiction phenomenon, right up there with Harry Potter. Published in 2012, Wonder is still the top seller in the juvenile fiction segment, has sold over five million copies, and has been published in 45 languages. On Friday, the film adaptation of Wonder, starring Jacob Tremblay as the protagonist Auggie Pullman, will arrive in movie theaters.
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Considering the fact the Wonder is now a staple on school curricula, used in nation-wide anti-bullying campaigns, and has inspired a movement with its own catchphrase (“Choose Kind”), Wonder is quite the remarkable debut novel. Prior to writing Wonder, Palacio had worked as an art director and book jacket designer for twenty years. She’d always wanted to write a novel. In August 2007, Palacio finally found the story she needed to write — and it stemmed from shock and disappointment at her own unkind reaction to seeing a young girl with severe craniofacial differences.
Palacio had been at an ice cream store with her two sons, and sat near a child with an appearance similar to her main character, Auggie’s. At the sight of the girl, Palacio's three-year-old son started crying. The author, trying to protect the girl’s feelings, panicked and fled the store.
“I got up from the bench as though a bee had stung me, flipped the stroller around, and called my older son, who was coming out of the store with chocolate shakes. The [milkshakes] went flying, and my son is going, ‘Mum, why are we leaving so quickly?’ and I heard the girl's mum say, in the calmest voice possible, ‘Okay guys, I think it's time to go.’ It was horrible, just horrible. My heart broke for this woman and for this girl, for whom this must happen a million times each day,” Palacio said in an interview with The Telegraph.
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Driving back home to Brooklyn, Palacio examined her family's reaction to the girl over and over again. “What I should have done is simply turned to the little girl and started up a conversation and shown my kids that there was nothing to be afraid of. But instead what I ended up doing was leaving the scene so quickly that I missed that opportunity to turn the situation into a great teaching moment for my kids. And that got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to ... have to face a world every day that doesn't know how to face you back,” she told NPR.
Then, whether through kismet or coincidence, the song “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant, sung from the perspective of a physically handicapped person, began playing on the radio. From this maelstrom of guilt, missed opportunity, and kismet, Palacio began writing Wonder.
'Things just collided in my mind," Palacio told The Telegraph. 'The first line came to me, and the whole premise of the novel. The book wrote itself."
She began Wonder that evening, and finished writing a year and a half later. Palacio feels she’s come full circle from the inciting incident back in 2007. “There's a certain act of atonement here, and the fact that maybe I'm helping this little girl, without her knowing, in some way because of Wonder — really, there's a nice little irony that is pretty special for me,” she said to NPR.
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Wonder is released to theaters on November 17.
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