If you’ve had a middle schooler in the past few years, they have probably read a book called Wonder, the bestselling 2012 novel about adolescence, feeling different, and what it means to be kind. As we approach the November release date for the movie based on the book, Your Teen had the chance to ask author R.J. Palacio some questions.
A Book Called Wonder
Why did you decide to write Wonder?
I was with my two sons, and we found ourselves in close proximity to a little girl with severe facial differences. That got me thinking about what it must be like to face a world every day that’s not quite sure how to face you back. I started writing Wonder as a way of exploring the feeling of being “othered.” It was also a way for me to talk about kindness and its importance in our everyday lives.
Let’s talk about the bully in Wonder. What drives him?
Julian is a mixed-up kid. He’s not a bad kid, though. I feel the need to defend him often because people hate him so much, but what they don’t know, or they don’t learn until they read [follow-up book] The Julian Chapter, is that his whole problem is that he’s afraid of Auggie [the main character with facial differences] and he doesn’t know how to deal with that fear. It manifests itself as hostility. It comes out as cruelty. He’s not getting the help he needs at home to overcome this fear or get to the root of it. His parents are somewhat blinded by their love for him. Mr. Tushman [the principal] tries his darnedest to help, but it’s his grandmother who is finally able to get through to him. What’s important to know is that while Julian’s made a mistake, that mistake doesn’t define him.
Middle School Students
What have you learned from talking to middle school students?
I think kids are so much more noble and wise than we give them credit for. They are very perceptive about what’s going on in the world, and they don’t want to be talked down to. On the other hand, things have to be explained or expressed in ways that are age-appropriate. That’s why storytelling is so elemental in this process. It allows kids to see themselves through the lens of characters apart from themselves. That little distance gives them just the right kind of objectivity to be truthful with themselves without feeling judged.
How would you describe yourself as a mom?
I’m a very affectionate, full-of-praise, hands-on, and slightly overprotective mom. I’m not of the “withhold praise” variety. In fact, I once suggested a book at [my publishing job at] Workman called Spoiled for Good: How Indulging Your Child’s Dreams and Wishes Makes for Happy, Confident Adults. I was only half-kidding with that, of course. But my parents raised me like that. They thought I could do anything and loved me unconditionally. That experience made me want to earn their faith in me, and to do good for them, and to do my best.
From Middle School to College
Your older son recently went through the college application process. What did you learn from the process, and what will you do differently next time?
That junior year was so anxiety-ridden for me. For my friends, too, whose kids were going through the same thing at the time. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been, of course. If I could do it over, I would worry a little less.
From what I’ve seen of my son’s generation, they do get over the heartbreaks of the rejections of their “reach” schools and all that nonsense. Once they get over that, every single kid got into the schools that turned out to be the best for them. I’m not saying they were always right. The college application people, however, seem to really know how to gauge what applicants would be a good fit for their school. Even when that actuality is a little painful for an applicant who’s convinced destiny intended them to go to this or that school. Ultimately, it’s a good thing for that student.
It’s like the reverse of that old Groucho Marx joke: “I’d never want to be part of a club that would have me as a member.” Why would you want to go to a school that didn’t want you to go there? Be happy with the schools that want you. In the end, my son had his choice of half a dozen fantastic schools. And he ended up exactly where he was meant to be.
Interview by Susan Borison