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The Wonder of Meeting R.J. Palacio

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R.J. Palacio, the author of the incredible book Wonder, came to share inspirational thoughts at Millburn High School on Tuesday evening, January 24th. Many local students and parents came to see R.J. Palacio speak at the event sponsored by Millburn’s Education Foundation.

Wonder is the touching story of a boy named, Auggie, who has a facial difference. Auggie is bullied by the other kids in the school, until the students start showing kindness to him after they realize the error of their ways. The story shows people of all ages that being kind is the best option.

R.J. Palacio is just Raquel Jaramillo’s pen name. Her mother’s maiden name was Palacio, and she wrote Wonder to honor her mother who had passed away. Ms. Palacio grew up loving illustrated books, and set out on a career to write and draw. She went to art school and began working as an illustrator for book covers. She started a family and suddenly found inspiration to write her own book. One day when Ms. Palacio was with her two sons at an ice cream parlor, a girl with a severe facial difference sat next to her. She panicked and knew her 3 year old son (and possibly even her older son) would react badly. Her younger son saw the girl and started crying. Mortified, Ms. Palacio fled the ice cream parlor and ran down the block. Afterwards, she felt terrible. Ms. Palacio realized she missed a teaching moment for her kids.

Ms. Palacio felt that she should have let her son cry and told the girl she is sorry about him crying and then introduce herself and be a good example. She began writing that day, and this event became the inspiration for when Jack describes the first time he met Auggie. She began writing Wonder on two ‘post-it’ notes and eventually used her laptop. The first sentence she wrote would end up being the first sentence in the published version. She would usually write from midnight to 3am because she was still doing her full time job of illustrating and raising two kids.

A year and a half later, Ms. Palacio finished the manuscript. When her son read the book, he left her a note that said “Mommy, I love you and Wonder :)”. Wonder quickly became extremely popular as teachers and librarians loved spreading the book’s message to choose kindness and wound up topping the “best of lists” for multiple years. Soon, a website and an app were released, which allowed kids to take a kindness pledge. The “Choose Kindness Movement” quickly spread across the country, and many teachers began teaching the story, including Millburn Middle School, which incorporates Wonder into its sixth grade curriculum. The book is now published in 45 different languages worldwide.

Ms. Palacio has written more books involving the characters of Wonder including Auggie And Me and 365 Days of Wonder. She just recently finished writing and illustrating her own picture book called, We’re All Wonders and is now writing a book completely different from Wonder for middle schoolers.

Lately, Ms. Palacio has become involved with politics, as she is the daughter of two immigrants and feels that “We need to stick up for what is kind in this world.” Ms. Palacio teaches people of all ages the message that the most important aspect of life is kindness. Immediately before her speech on Tuesday evening, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ms. Palacio.

Q: Bullying has become a large problem, especially with the trends of social media. Your book Wonder shows kids standing up to the bullies, but in what other ways can kids help to stop bullying?

A: I think that there are different kinds and some are easier to stand up to than others. When we laugh at someone, that is a soft form of bullying. When we join others and decide we don’t want to spend time with a person, that is bullying as well and that social isolation is something we can work to eliminate if we reject that kind of meanness. The hard kind is standing up to physical bullies and at those times it is best to go to grown ups.

Q: What lessons from Wonder would be most useful for middle school kids to learn, today?

A: The most important lessons would be the idea of being kind whenever possible to friends, strangers, teachers, and anyone who is having a bad day or struggling.

Q: What is your favorite quote from the book and why?

A: My favorite quote would be, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind,” (Wonder).  However, the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle” from the Julian chapter is also a quote I really love.

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