R.J. Palacio (pen name for writer Raquel Jaramillo) knows the exact moment she realized writing was in her future. As an assignment in her seventh grade English class, Palacio wrote a paper called “Time and the Sculpture.”
She vividly recalls how the teacher read the paper to the class and then asked the students to guess the author. Everyone knew it was Palacio. She doesn’t know how the class knew, but the fact they did stuck with her. Add in how her mother told her all her life she would have a career putting together words and the writing was on the classroom wall.
“I have been a closet writer my entire life,” Palacio says. “In fact, there were two things I was kind of good at and thought I could make a living doing them. For some reason, I could draw. I was always the class artist. I was always told I was good with words.”
She was not convinced enough about the writing praise to gamble on making a living as an author, and in college she opted to focus on graphic design. That was the start of a long road for Palacio that included a career as an art director, work as a book jacket designer and years as a book editor. Eventually the path she started in the late ’70s with a school assignment (and numerous unfinished novels) brought her to write the New York Times best-seller “Wonder” (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99).
Her story about a young boy with a facial birth defect trying to navigate middle school has been turned into a feature film of the same name starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson that opened Friday.
“By the time the idea for ‘Wonder’ sprung up on me, I was in a condition in that point of my life to really know what I was doing and start writing,” Palacio said.
The idea for the award-winning “Wonder” started with a trip to the ice cream store with her two sons. While waiting in line, Palacio noticed a girl with facial birth defects. Out of concern her 3-year-old son would see the girl and start crying, Palacio tried to leave the store, but that only made matters worse. The writer’s concerns weren’t about her son’s reaction.
“My reaction was to protect the little girl. I knew the moment my son saw he would start to cry and that is exactly what happened. My big fear was she would see him reacting to her face,” Palacio said. “I whisked him away and later regretted doing that. I was worried that from her point of view it might have looked like I was trying to shield my son.”
That incident touched Palacio deeply and sparked the idea for “Wonder.” The book not only deals with how children look at those who are different in appearance, but at how adults deal with such situations. Palacio also reveals through other characters that while the main character of Auggie can’t conceal his differences, all of the other characters are dealing with their own situations that make them different.
Palacio says showing how everyone has differences was something purposely done because she wrote the book with children in mind.
“I wanted to show them that everyone has a story to tell,” Palacio said. “We all have things about us that we wish we could change or we consider as burdens. In fact, our differences are what unites us all. We all have those things in common if we just look for them a little more. That was the message I wanted to give.
“The truth is I wrote it for kids, but I never wanted to talk down to them. I think one of the reasons so many people – adults and children – can read it is that writing for kids is no different than writing for adults. The only concession I made was to write in shorter sentences.”
Seeing her ideas come to life in the film has been an unusual experience for the author. She found the way filmmakers created the look for Auggie to be different from what she had envisioned while writing the book. But, Palacio knows that even those who have read her books have seen their version of Auggie in their minds’ eyes. The only thing that couldn’t change in creating the film was that it remain true to the idea Auggie is a 10-year-old boy who doesn’t look like other 10-year-old boys.
She’s quite excited about the casting of Roberts and Wilson to play Auggie’s parents as they are based on Palacio and her husband.
“That’s us. My husband is a very funny guy. I had only seen Owen in funny movies and I never expected him to turn in such a heartbreaking performance. When the funny guy cries, that gets you. It’s like a punch in the gut,” Palacio said. “To see Julia Roberts, it’s crazy because she is so amazing. Every emotion I wrote flickers across her face.”
Once her career got started with “Wonder,” a winner of the Mark Twain Award plus numerous other honors, Palacio has continued to write. Her other books include “365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts” and “Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories.”