Wonder author R. J. Palacio teaches anti-bullying to Port students

Erica Andrew, Staff Writer

Port Washington is no stranger to bullying, an issue that the district has combated throughout the school year.  In addition to the anti-bullying presentations that school administrators have put on in recent months, Port Washington elementary schools have introduced a new book, Wonder, to classrooms.

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, follows the life of August, a boy with a severe craniofacial difference, from the perspective of his peers.  Many of Port’s elementary schools have brought Palacio’s book into the classroom with the goal of promoting anti-bullying and tolerance.

On May 2, Palacio came to Schreiber and gave a presentation in the auditorium, discussing how she came to be an author and how she developed her book.  Following the presentation, Palacio answered written questions submitted by students during the school day, in addition to live questions from the students in attendance. Students from all the elementary schools were encouraged to attend, and so many did.

Palacio first entered the literary world as an artist designing book covers. She incorporated everything from abstract art to photos in her covers, and estimated that she must have done nearly 2,000 covers throughout her career.  Palacio’s interest in children’s books was revitalized once she had kids of her own, and her lingering desire to become an author resurfaced.

The inspiration for Wonder came from Palacio’s own experience as a mother when she encountered a young girl with a severe craniofacial deformity and was worried about how her own two children would respond if they saw.  In the end, Palacio ran away to avoid causing a scene with her kids, but in retrospect, she regretted this course of action and realized that she responded from fear rather than from kindness.

“I should have responded from kindness; I should have set an example.  Together we need to tune out bullies,” said Palacio.

Because of this experience, Palacio decide to write an “optimistic, hopeful book” about a child with a craniofacial difference to spread a message of kindness.

When students asked where the title of the book came from, Palacio explained that the name Wonder came from the song “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant, a song about the struggles of a child, that she felt paralleled August’s struggles.

One student asked why Palacio didn’t write a chapter from the bully, Julian’s, perspective.  She responded very simply: we should tune out bullies, pretend they don’t exist.

Each  character contributes to the story’s narrative, providing the reader with a unique perspective with each new character. Julian could not have anything to contribute that would be worth listening to.

Palacio admitted that she was worried that most people might not find the story relatable because craniofacial differences are not particularly common.  However, the theme in fact relates to a large audience.  Anyone who has ever endured isolation in any form can relate to August’s story.

“We all know what it is like to feel awkward, on the outside—feeling like we are not as lovely as someone else.  The first step is being nice, but the next level is being kind,” said Palacio.

She even received an email from a 91 year-old woman recalling a time when she was bullied as a 13 year old, praising the “choose kind” message, which advocates children to make the conscious choice to be nice to one another.  The influx of emails all shared a common thread: advocacy for the “choose kind” approach to anti-bullying.

Random House, one of the largest publishing company for children’s books, started a “Choose Kind” campaign.   Kids all over the country take an anti-bullying pledge and share their stories about bullying, isolation, and how they overcame their struggles.

“You want to always be the  kind one, just like Summer, the character in the book.  She was not just being nice to Augie, but was being a friend.  I thought that it was so cool that such a tiny moment inspired such an amazing book,” said Zoe, a fourth grader at Sousa Elementary School who read Wonder in her class.