When author R.J. Palacio penned Wonder, a book about a little boy with a craniofacial difference, back in 2012, she had no idea it would spark a worldwide movement of kindness.
"I never could have predicted the kind of reaction the book received," Palacio told The Christian Post in an exclusive interview. "Shortly after the publication of the book, teachers and librarians and parents started talking about standing up to bullies and using kindness as an aspirational way to motivate kids to want to be nicer to one another."
"I just wrote a humble little book reminding kids and maybe parents about the fact that their actions are noted, their actions are important," she added. "If you can walk in someone else's shoes for a little while you'll realize you have a lot more in common with people than you realize."
Wonder follows Auggie Pullman, a little boy born with facial features that set him apart from his peers, who enters fifth grade, attending elementary school for the first time. The book begins from Auggie's point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community's struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
In addition to inspiring the "Choose Kind" movement, Wonder became a New York Times best-seller, selling over 8 million copies worldwide. It's also required reading in many middle schools across the United States. Last year, the book was adapted into a hit movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson.
For Palacio, seeing her book hit the big screen was "surreal."
"It was so wonderful in the care they took to translate the book to movie, not just in terms of transcribing for writing a screenplay, but just in terms of the spirit of the book," she said. "I think everyone took such care to create the film in such a beautiful and funny and lighthearted way."
In the U.S., approximately 600,000 individuals have been diagnosed with a craniofacial condition, ranging from a cleft palate to a myriad of syndrome disorders.
Palacio said that over the years, she's received thousands of emails and letters from children who have facial differences, and parents of those kids describing how the book has impacted them. The stories that move her the most, she said, are those from the "real-life Auggie Pullmans."
"I had one dad tell me that before Wonder came out, just taking his son who had a very severe craniofacial difference to the playground was a big deal," she recalled. "They had to mentally prepare themselves every single time. One day, when his son went to the playground, kids came up to him and said, 'Hey! Are you like Auggie Pullman?' Now, it's completely different. It totally changed his son's personality. Those are the kind of stories that are extremely inspiring to me."
While Auggie is the focal point of Wonder, the book also delves into how the lives of his parents and sibling are affected by living with someone who has special needs.
"Siblings and parents have their own struggles, and I think that gets overlooked a lot," Palacio said. "Because the book shifts in different perspectives, it allows readers to feel what it's like to be someone on the receiving end of hostility and stares simply by virtue of being different. It also allows readers to walk in the shoes of the people surrounding Auggie, to experience what it's like to have someone start in school is who is the subject or object of so many stares."
Palacio, who has two sons of her own, hopes Wonder both inspires children to be kinder to one another and encourages parents to examine their own thoughts and attitudes toward those with differences.
"Before we talk to our children, we have to be aware of how we are," she said. "We need to embrace diversity and accept differences in our community. You might not be living next door to someone with a craniofacial difference, but you might be living next door to someone of a different race or religion who may feel isolated. As parents, we need to use every opportunity to teach our children kindness and that there is beauty in differences."
"Ultimately, Wonder is a meditation on kindness," she continued. "It's a story about the impact it can have on our fellow human beings, it's about compassion and tolerance and acceptance. I think I'm trying to inspire empathy and that through storytelling, that's the best way to do that."
"Wonder" the movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital. For many information, click here.